What happens when three architects and a critic get together to discuss skyscrapers? The start of plenty of bad jokes, I’m sure.
The Harbourfront Centre hosted a discussion based on their current exhibition Too Tall, where Misha Glouberman of Trampoline Hall moderated a well-rounded group of panelists in an attempt to answer the question “how tall is too tall?” The panelists consisted of Peter Clewes (architectsAlliance), Bruce Kuwabara (Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects), Richard Witt (RAW), and urban critic Roberta Brandes Gratz. Each had a unique perspective on the topic, confirming that it is not simply a question of “how tall is too tall,” but a wide range of issues that Toronto and its practitioners must address.
Clewes’ set the scene by explaining that the lack of by-laws in Toronto is the central cause of this endless debate. By-laws need to be put in place to address the use of the first five stories of a high-rise building alongside the surrounding cultural institutions, green space and amenities in order to ensure the cultural vitality of Toronto’s core.
Richards took a global perspective, illustrating the rapid population growth in various countries and concluding that going tall isn’t an option — it needs to happen. Sprawl is no longer an alternative to Toronto’s increasing population, as the space between the Greenbelt and Lake Ontario is quickly filling. According to Richards, going up is more sustainable and economically sound than going out.
Arguing on behalf of the skyscraper, Kuwabara contends that it is an integral part of a city’s identity, alluding to the semiotic ability of an urban skyline. However, he is careful to emphasize that each tall building must make a case for its height by contributing to the city through quality and program, specifically through the use of the ground floor. He goes further to propose that we have to find a way to express “the kind of open experiment of social democracy that we enjoy as Canadians.”
Kuwabara drew from a unique frame of reference with various punch lines about Toronto that had the entire audience chuckling. “Toronto is great because it is somewhat retarded,” he says, “and we’re retarded to our own benefit.” Referring to the period in the United States when public streetcars were replaced with Fords, he follows with “we’re so slow that we’re actually ahead of the game.”
As a New York City based urban critic, Brandes’ knowledge of various forms of planning led her to explain how groups of towers create a mono-culture of people. In order to maintain the diversity that draws people to Toronto’s downtown streets, tall buildings must be integrated into the dynamic existing fabric instead of grouped together. CityPlace anyone? No one wants another suburb condensed into 17 towers. Diversity cannot be maintained if density exists in groups of single-purpose towers.
With over one million people moving to the downtown core within the next twenty years as stated by Clewes, tall buildings appear to be the only solution considering the limited amount of land. Perhaps if we can discover what makes a tall building desirable without compromising the integrity, vitality, and diversity of Toronto, an answer to how tall is too tall will shift to address both the needs of the city and the desires of its residents.