05 September 2009

New York from Toronto: Architecture

I had never seen such a densely built environment in my life. Manhattan's architecture is the beautiful density I always dreamed of but never really knew existed. It's what I've wished Toronto would someday become after centuries of vertical intensification. The sort of tall old buildings that would make me stop in my tracks to admire (and remember the name of so I could research later) and that are so rare in Toronto seem to comprise the vast majority of Manhattan buildings. I found a world of buildings, an uber-urbanity that felt like a universe unto itself.

I had read about how there's no laneways in New York, but I was surprised to find there was no space at all between most buildings. Most seemed "glued" together, as though, somehow, each building on each block was built as an addition to the one beside it. It made me curious as to how such temporally and stylistically disparate structures had been constructed immediately adjacent to each other in such narrow spaces. It seemed like an architectural marvel that so many tall buildings could be erected thus, along with their respective sanitation systems, electricity wiring, etc.

Manhattan is so heavily built up that it felt more like a product of nature than something built by mere humans. As rows of tall buildings run along either side of most streets, producing seemingly impenetrable walls due to the lack of alleys, walking in Manhattan feels like traversing a network of canyons. Experiencing it is like viewing some sort of sublime natural wonder, like Niagara Falls or Mount Everest. It's hard to imagine the block-length clumps of buildings ever having been constructed; buildings stand together in such ostensive symbiosis that the architectural brushstrokes, if you will, are unapparent.

While in Toronto areas of closely built vertical structures mostly contain either commercial skyscrapers like in the financial district or low-income residences like in St. James Town, everything in Manhattan is housed thus. In fact, upon returning to Toronto I realised that I don't think I saw a single house in New York City. It seems that everyone, no matter their income or ethnicity or whatever, lives (and works) vertically. In other words, it's my dream world.

Now that I'm back home I've been thinking about how Toronto's big buildings differ from New York's. Firstly, the vast majority of skyscrapers in Toronto seem to have been built between the '60s and the '80s, and thus are made of concrete slabs, glass, and steel as per the International Style. Conversely, Manhattan clearly began vertical intensification early in the 20th century as its skyscrapers more often have heavy ornamentation, are made of bricks, have copper roofs, etc. Toronto's examples of these sorts of older architecture are usually only a few storeys tall (like U of T buildings, for instance), so it was weird to see skyscraper versions of styles that I'm used to finding only in small buildings. It seems like, as cities grow up, they eventually reach a point when buildings start getting really tall so that desirable areas can fit as many people as possible. While Manhattan clearly reached this "verticalisation" point early in the century, Toronto reached it closer to the end.

Although I never thought I'd say so, I think Manhattan might be too beautiful. The amount of architectural beauty assaulting my vision from every angle in Manhattan almost made me sick. It was a feast of urbanity and a real, seemingly endless "urban jungle." I felt dizzy looking around so much. It was both overwhelming and exhilarating; it made me feel insignificant, like a speck in the universe, but also dignified, as though I were roaming a civilisation built by gods. I must admit that I miss this aspect of New York. I want to see more of it.


  1. We've already talked about this stuff in person, but I thought I'd comment just to at least let you know that I read it. And that I like your pictures

  2. Thank you for letting you know someone read this and that someone liked my photographs. That encourages me to keep posting and taking photographs.