Crystal Domes and Silver Towers: Toronto’s New Cities Within Cities

In Italo Calvino’s slender book, Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes fantastic cities he has seen on the Silk Route. The first Invisible Cities-moment I had was years ago cresting Leslie Ave. near Highway 7 and seeing a city of golden and blue office towers housing the headquarters of the burgeoning high-tech industry in Markham.

This city seemed to have mushroomed when I turned my back for a moment.

But now this experience is even more spectacular within the heart of Toronto, in two areas especially: the Esplanade near the St. Lawrence Market and the closely packed condo buildings, some of odd shape, between the lake, near Billy Bishop Airport, and the Gardiner Expressway, and even on the north side of the Expressway. Driving from the west into downtown you feel as if you were on an elevated road into a futuristic city, the newness and startling designs giving you a sense of disorientation.

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A few weeks ago, friends invited us to their 25th-floor condo on the Esplanade. As the sky darkened, a constellation of lights appeared, some from familiar skyscrapers from the ’70s, but a myriad of other stars from recently completed buildings. We saw lights on in empty boardrooms, we saw the cleaning crew vacuuming between cubicles and emptying waste paper baskets, we saw the cool light of lifeless office space, looking abandoned as if there had been a fire drill. Tens of thousands of workers, including our guests, rode elevators up to these offices and lived a great part of their waking lives answering phones and faxes and reading e-mails and giving PowerPoint presentations. In the daytime hundreds of millions of dollars flow from one account to another across the globe, but at night the lighted offices exist purely for beauty. After several minutes of watching, it is easy to feel you are floating in a galaxy. How must it seem in a snowstorm or in fog?

Snowstorm in downtown Toronto.The new condo buildings near Bathurst and the Gardiner have a completely different feel. The area must have been designed for those in their 20s and 30s, the apartments functional and not very spacious, with kitchens more like galleys on a boat, meant for people who eat out most of the time. Down below, on street level, there are many trendy restaurants and cafés and bars, quite a few lining King Street – at least fifteen between Bathurst and Spadina – where I remember in the distant past these night spots housed shops selling welding equipment, electrical motors and plumbing supplies. On a dreary day in November they used to make my heart sink. But now everything is driven by the vitality of youth and hums with energy. What used to be an industrial building is now an Italian restaurant that prides itself on authentic ingredients and regional recipes. Ultra-modern bars and restaurants are in newly-built or renovated hotels.Highrises in Toronto at night.

As for the buildings themselves, it seems to me a scandal that so many of them have been allowed to crowd such a small area. On the other hand, many of them are in what I would call a bold style, with crenellations, semi-circular towers row after row, and unusual colors. If it were not for a few old landmarks such as the Tip Top Tailor warehouse, I would think I had been transported to an alien city. But night covers a multitude of sins and we are left with a spectacular blaze of lights. In my ear I hear Rhapsody in Blue, which Gershwin said described “our metropolitan madness.”

– Robert Fisher
Photos by Linda Nussbaum

For more on Toronto’s building boom, see our issue A Thousand Cranes.