Viewpoint (February 01, 2006)

Them suburbs is gonna rise again! As commercial real estate and condominium developments continue to seek greener pastures and be attracted to lower tax rates in suburban municipalities, the resulting architecture and urbanism is beginning to break the mould of mediocrity. For Vancouver suburbs like Surrey, its four SkyTrain stations can connect commuters to downtown Vancouver in less than 35 minutes, allowing for an economic conduit to a major city centre and feeding large ambitious developments like Surrey City Centre (CA, March 2004). For Mississauga, the confidence of connectivity is achieved through the five highways running through the city and having the country’s largest airport at its doorstep. It was only a matter of time before the architecture of these netherworlds was going to transcend the banal and usher in a new era of suburban development. As we turned our fascination to the rapid growth occurring in China and Dubai, we forgot to look beyond our own smog-ridden horizons and discover the new worlds rising in our own backyards. The suburbs, with its variants on the definition of a “distinct society,” are turning into heavyweight urban generators that are altering our conceptions of the Canadian city.

In late October and just prior to the municipal elections in Surrey, then-Mayor Doug McCallum announced his intentions to support the ill-fated development of an 81-storey tower near the King George SkyTrain station. With a population of around 400,000, Surrey is the second largest municipality in the province. Continuing its growth, there are currently more than four towers over 20 storeys under construction, with seven more under way. But Surrey exhibits similar problems like most other suburbs: lack of public and pedestrian space, incoherent building forms and a largely automobile-dependent environment. Anxious to shed this reputation, Surrey officials believed that building the tallest tower in Canada would improve its image. This ambition may yet work. As Surrey grows, newer and bolder architecture might just rise above its low-density ground plane.

Meanwhile in Ontario, west of Toronto and virtually unknown outside the province, the largely banal suburb of Mississauga is actually Canada’s sixth largest municipality. With a population surpassing 700,000, it is one of the fastest-growing municipalities in this country. The taxes are low, the city is debt-free and its confidence is rising. It is now ready to take on architectural challenges beyond the expedient, as evidenced by a recent design competition held in December 2005 for the fourth condominium tower of “Absolute Community,” a new development for 1,800 families that is expected to be at least 50 storeys high. The first phase of the competition drew more than 600 registrants and 92 submissions from architects in 70 countries. If the developers maintain their nerve and choose a daring scheme from the six finalists, Mississauga will assert its architectural confidence through a new tower that will prove to Canadians that the suburbs can no longer be avoided by critics, theorists and practice–the suburbs are a harbinger for an emerging Canadian urbanity.