25 June 2012
Precedent Over Progress?
A recent decision by the city to reject a development proposal on College near Spadina again has me wondering: Why should new buildings conform to the old context? There seems to be a popular notion that, without any further explanation, a new building should be subservient to its context; period. When I ask why, I tend to only hear vague aesthetic preferences supporting this view, like claims that the structure is “oppressive,” rather than any solid reasoning that such a development would actually hurt people.
Why is the status quo taken to be the gold standard of architecture and urban planning? Is it so inconceivable that a new building could do better than its surroundings? Maybe we should be setting a new, better precedent in some contexts, such as suggesting that highly transit-accessible areas should be composed of buildings taller than bungalows. Some contexts aren’t good enough, in which cases we should make a new context. Why should we presume that the existing urban fabric is always a better urban model than anything else imaginable? In most cases in which height is controversial in Toronto, the surroundings are two, three, or four-storey buildings, and the anti-tall building mindset implies that we should keep such parts of the city at their current low height. Continuing to build neighbourhoods at their current height simply because they currently are that height seems ridiculous. It’s not as though there was a master plan that determined the average heights of different parts of the city when it was first conceived, the disruption of which would cause the city to cave in on itself. The ideal urban form is not set in stone; it changes depending on how many people want to live in an area, how much space we have left, etc.
Further, how does the first tall building ever get built in a city, if tall buildings should only be built alongside others? Should tall buildings only ever be built in cities that already have them (which would restrict such development enormously)? Should a spacially-wasteful suburb, for instance, never build a tall building because it never has before? Is vertical precedent restricted to the past? To take my bewilderment of this anti-height position to an extreme, I’d like to ask: What would happen even if a 100-storey building was built next to a suburban home in Pickering? Would the world explode? I honestly don’t know why such a thing should be avoided. If anything, it seems it would greatly improve the area by moving it in the direction of a more sustainable, vibrant, and dense community. If the demands of its residents are too high for the low-density context, such as the sidewalks being too small or the public transit insufficient, can’t the context change to suit the development? Why not build the ideal building in an area - no matter the height - and then update the area accordingly?
The benefits of adding a tall building to urban areas are numerous and seem relatively easy to explain: More people get to live in a sustainable, vibrant neighbourhood, which comprises urban rather than suburban growth, it adds cultural and economic activity to the area, better use is made of space that is otherwise a parking lot or merely a two or three-storey building, etc. To me, in general, it seems that more is better when it comes to development. Others, especially NIMBYs, seem to think the opposite.