Show me your skyscrapers…
When Toronto home builders unveiled a model of their sinuously undulating, Calatrava-like high-rise condo tower in Mississauga, Ont. last year the media — which has always responded to readers’ fascination with unusual, especially bizarre, stories — lavished coverage on its design, by Beijing-based architect Yansong Ma.
Not by any one of several Canadian architects who do all kinds of projects in China, including some buildings which would make the Mississauga twisting tower look a bit ho-hum.
Buyers snatched the apartments in the “Marilyn Monroe” tower off the market so quickly that a companion tower (Building, Oct/Nov 2006) was quickly marketed to catch the overflow of buyers. Both are now under construction, and are such a novelty, especially in suburban Mississauga, that there will likely be lots of drive-by gawkers attracted to the site when they’re completed next year.
Sir Winston Churchill suggested that “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” and Canadians, for the most part it seems, endorse forgettably conservative buildings, which feeds and perpetuates the unexciting environments most of us inhabit.
There aren’t that many office and residential buildings across Canada that make people stop, or even pause, to admire, let alone make a special trip to marvel close-up at their architectural beauty. Well-constructed with good materials? Maybe. Following national building code regulations and all that? Most likely. But enough to stop you, or even slow you, in your tracks? Hardly.
A few new university buildings might do it, but only a few. Daniel Libeskind’s Royal Ontario Museum addition in Toronto is unfolding, but at the moment it’s a confusing jumble of variously covered jagged roof parts which lack cohesion and may not live up to the billing on the rendering. Frank Gehry’s work for the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto may also not make us gasp with admiration, but perhaps because we were expecting something resembling his Guggenheim Bilbao and Disney Hall Los Angeles masterpieces.
I was in China last fall and if I wasn’t gasping, I was busy turning my head in every direction so as not to miss the mesmerizing architecture and interplay with parks, sculpture and road systems, even if they were often gridlocked. Ironically, there are at least 15 Canadian architectural practices designing those kinds of head-turning buildings across China, projects they could never contemplate in Canada.
And we’re at the point where Dubai can’t be left out of most general conversations about urban planning, architecture and development. There is no other place on earth that, despite its tiny size, is able to do so many remarkable (and some admittedly dreadful) buildings, due in no small part to its phenomenal wealth and the power of the ruling families who are able to expedite a project with surprising speed.
We can take heart, I suppose, from the first stirrings of Toronto’s interest in its own version of the design review panel which has been so successful in Vancouver. We can be somewhat more enthused about the understatedly elegant office and condo-hotel towers under construction or coming soon to downtown Toronto, Montreal, and even Calgary.
Otherwise it’s mainly a case of the bland leading the bland. When are planning departments, city councils, developers, lenders and even possibly urban activists going to agree on a new regime of buildings that meet some minimum — make that maximum — level of visual excitement? Everybody these days keeps saying “good design sells” but not many people are doing it. They’re all leaving it for someone else to do.
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