The Tower at 25

In his famous 1964 essay “The Eiffel Tower,” Roland Barthes describes how the writer Guy de Maupassant often lunched in the Tower’s restaurant, not because he liked the food, but because, he claimed, it was the only place in Paris where he didn’t have to see it.

The CN Tower may not play quite the same ubiquitous role in the Toronto psyche as the Eiffel Tower does in Paris, but for the past 25 years it has been an undeniable defining feature of the city’s skyline. Originally opened to the public on June 26, 1976, this year the tower–which stands 553.33 metres (1,815 feet 5 inches) tall–celebrates a quarter-century as the world’s tallest free-standing structure.

Originally conceived as part of Metro Centre, a large development along Front Street and on the Railway Lands that was never built, the tower was designed by the joint venture team of John Andrews Architects and the Webb Zerafa Menkes Housden Partnership–who combined to form Architects for Metro Centre–with Roger Nicolet as structural engineer.

Like its Parisian counterpart, the tower was to have been the focal point of a monumental urban design scheme. Just as the Eiffel Tower terminates one axial vista along the Champ de Mars on the Left Bank and another from the Place du Trocadero across the Seine, the CN Tower was intended to provide the focal point for an extension of the Esplanade, a broad boulevard running east-west along Toronto’s lakefront.

However, two years into the tower’s construction, plans for Metro Centre were scrapped, leaving the structure in not-so-splendid isolation and creating serious problems with access and integration of the tower into the city fabric. Ned Baldwin, project architect with John Andrews, wrote at the time that “All of the logic which dictated the design of the lower accommodation has been upset,” and that “Under such ludicrous circumstances Canadian National would hardly have chosen this location to build.” (See CA, March 1976)

Since the tower’s construction the surrounding area has been developed with a variety of projects, most notably the nearby SkyDome, Toronto’s retractable roof stadium, which was built in the late ’80s. The short, squat stadium and the tall, lean tower combine to create the odd couple that currently dominates the local landscape.

In addition to what turned out to be problematic siting, Baldwin, now a principal of Baldwin and Franklin Architects, notes some other disappointments. Among these are the tower’s lighting and what he regards as the excessive proximity of SkyDome: “It should have been built 300 feet further west. It would have made for a better composition.” He also reminisces about the great pressure on the design team since “the scope, the program, was not tied down until about halfway through construction; we were adding decks and making major changes at a time when we should have been focusing on details.”

In spite of these flaws, the CN Tower remains a remarkable technical achievement. The construction process itself was a memorable event in the city’s history, lasting 40 months, employing 1,537 workers, and incorporating 40,523.8 cubic metres of concrete and 128.7 kilometres of tensioned steel. Concrete construction was done by continuous pour, using slip-form technology and rising an average 20 feet per day, and the communications mast–the tower’s ostensible raison d’tre, which constitutes its top 300 feet and broadcasts the signals of about 20 UHF and VHF television and FM radio stations–was erected using a Sikorsky crane helicopter nicknamed Olga.

Asked why he thinks the tower’s height has not been surpassed since its completion in 1976, Baldwin muses that a project like the CN Tower requires the convergence of “three fantastic coincidences.” First, it needs a client with a singular, determined vision (Baldwin credits then-CN Chairman Norman MacMillan with this role); second, it requires a political climate where there’s broad public support, both official and popular; and third, it needs “money–plenty of money.” (The CN Tower cost $63 million to build, roughly $300 million in today’s dollars. The investment was recouped in just 14 years.)

Meanwhile, with 275 years left in its projected service life of 300, the tower remains one of Toronto’s most popular attractions, drawing two million visitors per year. And although Roland Barthes wrote these words about the Eiffel Tower, they equally apply to the CN Tower’s enduring popular appeal: “one can dream there, eat there, observe there, understand there, marvel there, shop there; as on an ocean liner (another mythic object that sets children dreaming), one can feel oneself cut off from the world and yet the owner of a world.”