In Praise of the Suburban Tower

Is there any architectural form more forlorn than the suburban tower? Typically, it’s a free-standing slab set amongst parking lots and lawns full of Canadian goose crap. It’s where you go to work. It’s where you visit your proctologist. You never linger. You never look up. It’s supposed to be integrated in a natural setting, but inside all traces of nature are rigorously neutralized: artificial plants thrive in a muted, unchanging light. Movement is tracked and controlled by security badges. About the best thing that can happen to you there is that you remembered where you parked your car.

Strip malls are a symbol of everything that’s bad about suburban architecture, but we’ve learned to live with them. Besides, Tyler Cohen has taught us that that’s where the best ethnic restaurants are located. Downtown towers are symbols of corporate power, arrogance, the totemic force of the urban center, whatever. But what does its stubby cousin, the suburban office tower symbolize? The heroism of the regional sales office?

And yet, oftentimes they’re not awful buildings. Here and there you can find a thoughtfully designed gem. Sometimes unimaginative developers and suburban planning commissions let a playful take on the vernacular of the form to slip through. One local example is the 3Com building in Schaumburg, Illinois, now looking for a primary tenant. A more specular example is Yansong Ma and Yosuke Hayano’s residential tower in Mississauga, Ontario.

It’s perhaps not an accident that a shapely tower is taking shape in suburban Toronto. ERA Architects of Toronto have initiated the Toronto Tower Renewal project, which is dedicated to restoring and updating the area’s slab towers. The Toronto metropolitan area has North America’s second highest concentration of towers. (New York has the highest.) As the project’s blog tells us,

Next time you are in Chicago or Philadelphia try looking for an apartment tower neighbourhood outside the city core – the kind we have throughout Toronto. They’re rare in North American cities but common in other Commonwealth countries, like Australia, and they are an even more significant force in many European cities, such as Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and especially Moscow. Aspects of Toronto suburbs display a remarkable similarly of what can be witnessed across the globe.

The Toronto Tower Renewal project battles against the neglect with which mid-century modernism currently suffers. It also reminds us that these buildings aren’t just corporate work farms. They are worthwhile architectural objects in their own right, with their own history and design philosophy.

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