Editorial: Too Tall?

The new three-tower ICE development in Toronto by architectsAlliance will offer a complex mix of program, contributing to a vibrant street life. architectsAlliance
The new three-tower ICE development in Toronto by architectsAlliance will offer a complex mix of program, contributing to a vibrant street life. architectsAlliance

At Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, a current architecture exhibition entitled Too Tall? explores the merits of tall buildings. Three Toronto firms–architectsAlliance, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB) and RAW Design–have each developed unique installations examining important issues of height, density and sustainability with respect to the future of Toronto’s towers.

architectsAlliance chose to answer the exhibition’s seminal question of “too tall?” simply with “not at all.” Their response addresses the fact that the Greater Toronto Area is likely to absorb another 1.5 million souls by 2020. Based on the realities of affordability and increased demand for housing, they argue that many more towers will need to be built in Toronto’s downtown core and inner suburbs for years to come.

RAW responds to the central question of height with “tall not sprawl.” For RAW, the most polemical firm to emerge in Toronto in recent years, intensification is a more important consideration than building height since high-density buildings are land-use-efficient, and ideally promote energy-efficient cities.

And lastly, KPMB’s response to the exhibition’s challenge is more provocative: are we building tall enough? In their view, we shouldn’t be thinking about limiting the heights of buildings, but instead must focus more carefully on context, scale, sustainability, innovative program mix, and last but not least, design excellence. All three firms make interesting arguments, but perhaps the biggest critique of the exhibition relates to its premise. Clearly, the success of a tall building depends on a variety of factors–only one of which relates to height.

The definition of an appropriate height for tall buildings is being debated in nearly every Canadian city. Vancouver may in fact have the best system of controls and understanding regarding tall buildings. After all, here is a city defined by its point towers and whose planning culture seeks to balance land intensification, views of nearby snow-capped mountains, and streetscape-friendly ground-oriented development–whether it be townhouses or retail frontage. Recently completed tall buildings, such as the Woodward’s redevelopment (see p.22) prove their worth in coordinating impossibly complex mixed-use programming that introduces the diversity of city life within a singular high-rise development. Cities like Halifax have had a more difficult time–both within City Hall and with regular citizens–in accepting tall buildings in the downtown core, despite the establishment of view corridors and the desire to keep jobs and residents from migrating out to the suburbs.

Tall buildings have proven useful in triggering significant neighbourhood renewal, yet their success must be measured in conjunction with other factors, such as economic revitalization and social diversification. Montreal, Calgary and Winnipeg have each measured their approaches to urban revitalization in this way, to varying degrees of success. For example, the City of Calgary deployed Canada’s first tax-increment financing model to borrow money based on future revenues derived from property taxes to redevelop the East Village neighbourhood–a large portion which will include the soon to be completed 60-storey Bow Tower designed by Foster + Partners. And then there are the suburban municipalities like Mississauga, Burnaby and Surrey that are experiencing faster growth than their neighbours–the hegemonic cities of Toronto and Vancouver. Mississauga has become the sixth-largest municipality in Canada, and the many towers built around its central shopping core over the past 10-15 years have resulted in an ongoing attempt to create an intensely populated “downtown.” Nobody is counting the number of storeys on the Absolute (Marilyn Monroe) Towers in Mississauga, but the 50- and 56-storey condo buildings are intended to spur urban intensification in this largely sprawling metropolis.

Taken in the context of what’s occurring across the country, the responses by the three firms currently exhibiting at Toronto’s Harbourfront are interesting. Although they rightly understand the need to intensify our cities, accommodate population growth, enliven the street, incorporate a sophisticated multi-use program mix, and increase the energy efficiency of buildings, they fail to emphasize the catalytic potential of tall buildings as tools for socially and economically dynamic urban revitalization. We need to expand our scope when considering the greater value of tall buildings. That is some tall order.