The skyscraper. The form has tended to inspire extremes. Architect Louis Sullivan, in the sort of proto-fascist bluster that became typical of early Modernism, declared, "It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing... without a single dissenting line."
The late French theorist Jean Baudrillard suggested that the terrorist attacks in Manhattan were effective because they brought into sharp relief the terror of living and working inside such monoliths.
If you were to plot Torontonians' extreme feelings about tall buildings, the result would look very much like a topographic map. Imagine a hand large enough to read the braille of our roofscape. Height, of course, would be especially important.
And so is history, though we would have to distinguish it from memory; towers efface that which came before. And in a growing capital city that would like to stay a small town, that tends to get a rise.
"There's this mental fixation," says Kyle Rae with a wry grin, "where people say 'I want things to stay the same until I move or until I die. '"
The councillor for Toronto Centre, renowned (or reviled) for enthusiastic appreciation of the high-rise, says his own fixation ended a few years before he was first elected in 1991.
"I believed in the [mid-rise] development in St. Lawrence, one of our supreme neighbourhoods," he says - until, to hear him tell it, he didn't see the light. It was what he saw on Wilton Street that changed his mind. "It was a simple thing: I think this is the last road in the city to have the ice melt in the spring. There's a dense wall of 12-storey 'Euro loaves' across the south side." He says he realized that if he took the buildings and stood them up tall, there would actually be more light because the shadows wouldn't linger in exactly the same spots. "This is a non sequitur for most people. They think tall means shadow.'
Chief planner Ted Tyndorf agrees. "As a building becomes thinner, it appears to move more quickly.' There's a host of metaphors that swirl around tall buildings - both Rae and Tyndorf talk about shadow "motion,' and Tyndorf stresses the need for "rhythm" in a skyline.
"There's a great tendency for Toronto architecture to be a stand-up-and-look-at-me type thing," he laments. "But no one wants to be part of the chorus, the supporting cast. The most livable cities have a good supporting cast, with some star players among them."
Councillor Gord Perks has some opinions on that. "The struggle is always between the developer's desire to make as much money within the footprint as possible, which says, 'Go up till gravity defeats you,' and the demands of good urban form." Perks, a long-time ecology activist, surprises me by going against the typical rhetoric of big-and-tall sustainability.
"Density is great," he says. "I love density. And some of the most dense places are cities in Europe that were built before the advent of tall buildings."
He asserts that sustainable compactness can be achieved in under 10 storeys, because as residential towers grow up, good planning dictates that spaces around them have to grow out - and even underground.
"Towers require gaps and spaces around them that waste so much land that a tower is no longer sensible."
But most high-density housing is built by developers. Barred from towers of glass, they'd still want towers of money. And when builders buy large tracts of land, even if it's not towers they're building, their projects tend not to connect well with their surroundings. There's an unexpected resemblence between luxury blocks and government housing projects, even if their exclusivities move in opposite directions. They're both fields of static in the city transmissions.
Condo towers, says Pearl Quong, a Grange resident who works in non-profit housing, don't enhance neighbourhoods. "You don't see most of the people. They're just coming in and out." Towers, she says, bring change too quickly and "create transient communities," in the sense that many rent out their condos and see them merely as investments.
And such wanderers can exert political and economic pressures of an enormity only dreamed of by those more commonly called transients. As developers case an area, property values go up. Since Toronto's property taxes are based on market value assessment (the owner pays based on how much the building would fetch if sold), higher rents squeeze out smaller merchants and those serving marginalized communities.
While planners stress mixed-used developments, focusing commercial use at the bottom ("It's the first four floors that tell the tale," says Tyndorf), corporate franchises are the only businesses that can afford developers' rents. There's already talk of requiring a certain percentage of affordable housing per condo development; the next natural step may be affordable commerce.
Tyndorf says a new approach to towers is "strata plans," in which the first few floors of a condo tower are owned by one party and those above are owned collectively by residents.
I'm starting to understand why the surrealists were so taken with urban form.