“Toronto’s condo towers look bland and the city should and could do better”. That pretty much sums up the message in the recently published booklet Rise and Sprawl. The first part of that line is delivered by Hans Ibelings, a Dutch architectural historian, writer, and critic, who collaborated with Toronto-based architecture and design firm Partisans, which represents the “should and could do better” part.
In the past ten years, condo towers have dramatically changed the face of Toronto, mostly so by the numbers. Aided by favorable zoning changes, a sturdy Canadian financial sector, foreign investment and the promise of a modern urban lifestyle, Toronto developers have been adding tens of thousands of units annually to the city center.
Personally I find this development mightily interesting as there is a lot to learn for other cities and their developers, especially about how the influx of new residents revitalized the downtown area, making it a much more lively place than it was a mere fifteen years ago.
Toronto’s skyline, source Jason Baker at Flickr
Then there is also the point of view that all towers basically look alike, offering the same floor plans in the same glass boxes, are being sold using the same marketing techniques, and most importantly, do no live up to certain architectural standards. This is the perspective the book takes.
Every building boom comes with opportunities and pitfalls and it’s a good thing to explicitly single out the latter as the excitement that comes with the first might be a bit blinding at times. As such, the lack of an architectural vernacular for the city, the inflexible and homogeneous nature of the towers, and the low incentive for design excellence and innovation are indeed examples of that. I’m just not sure if blaming developers and, to some extent, the government for not understanding that architecture matters will change anything.
For me, it would have been much more inspiring to see examples of best practices when it comes to developing condo towers as real vertical villages, or the ways in which a condo tower cooperates with its environment to strengthen the neighborhood. There are six pages in the back offering some kind of recommendations and inspiration on how to improve development, but these are rather abstract and theoretical. I doubt they will convince developers to do otherwise, or the public to ask for more value for their money.
algorithm generated color schemes of TO condo towers
Rise and Sprawl is basically a pamphlet aimed at developers, but most likely appeals to those who consider architecture to be an artistic expression. As such, the book is great input for an architectural debate, but it falls a bit flat on being an inspirational, pragmatic guide on how to do things differently.