Consider the skylines of cities like London, New York or Chicago. None of these cities lack for skyscrapers, many of which dwarf the new and proposed towers that have the NIMBYists in fits in Canadian cities such as Ottawa.
But, unlike the unimaginative slabs that have typified Canada’s recent condo craze, many of the towers in these other cities were built with a sharp eye for aesthetics and style. The result is interesting skylines that draw visitors from around the world.
Now, let’s head to the Mediterranean island nation of Malta. Its capital city, Valletta, doesn’t lack for signature landmarks, but much of the city is packed, cheek to jowl, with low-rise buildings that look like they were hewn from blocks of sandstone. The streets are narrow, heightening the sense of being trapped in a cramped space.
Urban density, can be done well, or done poorly. As these examples show, building height alone is not an accurate measure of good or bad.
Sparked by height alone
And yet, in many Canadian cities, condemnation and criticism is often sparked by height alone.
So how tall is too tall?
I’ve written before about the need for new development to fit in with the character of an existing neighbourhood. There are plenty of opportunities for redevelopment and infill in a city that will meet desired densification goals without having to climb past 20 stories by default.
Beyond what makes sense for the character and history of an existing neighbourhood, the question of too tall, or not, really comes down to aesthetics. If a building is more than just another rectangular slab, if it is architecturally distinct, height ceases to be as much of an issue.
The problem is cookie-cutter slabs are usually much more economical to build for developers who just want to get in, make their money, and get out, as fast as possible. But few of us would want municipal governments to appoint themselves the maestros of style, dictating through public policy not only how tall a building can be but also what it should look like.
With many of those great buildings from decades past that have become today’s cherished landmarks, the impetus for their designs wasn’t bureaucratic dictates, but civic pride (and sometimes ego, on part of the builders). Why else does New York have the Empire State Building, Chicago its Board of Trade Building, or London its “Gherkin” — 30 St. Mary Axe?
The idea of civic pride isn’t dead. It’s what gave Ottawa, staid old Ottawa, its new convention centre, reminiscent of a tulip flower. Years before, it gave the city the Chateau Laurier, the Lord Elgin, the Central Chambers and the other facades on Sparks and Elgin Streets.
Tall is not the issue
Tall alone is not the issue. Tall, boring, ugly or otherwise uninspired is.
There is cultural and economic value in building tall. The greater the density of people, the more vibrant the walkable lifestyle. The taller the buildings, the fewer you need to squeeze into a given area. More people within walking distance of each other can support a greater variety of specialty shops, services and entertainment options, from art galleries to theatre districts. And people don’t have to add to traffic congestion and pollution if their commute to work can be on two feet rather than four wheels.
Elgin Street in Ottawa is a perfect example. It’s within reach of Parliament Hill and the Rideau Canal, and yet, it was once a disaster for retail and service businesses. But efforts to gentrify old town homes, and the addition of new condo developments have revamped the area into a hip, busting retail hub that’s popular with the under-40 crowd.
When I was first discussing this topic with colleagues, I considered venturing into where and how building efficiency factors into this from a shape and size perspective. I may still do that in a future post, but given the tools that are available to architects today with computer-assisted design, many of these traditional limitations are obsolete.
Consider Mississauga’s “Marilyn Monroe,” a pair of twisty structures officially known as the Absolute World Towers. Last fall, the complex was named best new skyscraper for 2012 (look at slide #11 at this link) by an international judging panel that called it “a superb technical achievement, but also a refreshing change to the set forms of high-rise routine.”
The towers are also part of a complex of buildings that have room to breathe – there is open space around them. Densification has been achieved without crowding thanks to the buildings’ height.
If Mississauga can claim such a landmark, reminiscent in form to a voluptuous starlet of yesteryear, anything is possible.
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