Condo toponymy

Ending the habit of condo zombiemaking on Toronto’s streets

The Timeless Beauty of Lanterra’s One Bedford Condominium, 1 February 2009 (in Ektachrome 320T) [photo: Astrid Idlewild]

The Timeless Beauty of Lanterra’s One Bedford Condominium, 1 February 2009 (in Ektachrome 320T) [photo: Astrid Idlewild]

Would we hate Toronto’s high-rise condos any less if we could remember them by name?

That is, if they actually kept a permanent, highly visible name for decades to come?

In a recent dream I experienced just before waking up, there was a summery scene right before sunset in what could have easily been eastern North York or western Scarborough. In a relatively low-density area which clearly looked as if all its development was less than three years old, I saw a couple of new high-rise condo buildings. So I went to have a look.

The one condo which stood out was thematically far-fetched, but were it were to exist anywhere, I couldn’t think of anywhere else but the GTA where this could feasibly happen. The building was clad in a 1970s modernist style of vertical stone and glass much like First Canadian Place‘s sister tower in Chicago: the AON Center. This condo was different in that the stone used was like the polished grey granite one might typically ascribe to tombstones. The glass in between each thin stone column was opaque black — almost like Vitrolite.

Around the side, the condo’s parking garage entry was a lot like One Bedford at Bloor’s cavernous new portal. High-end cars from new residents were parked within view from the street. Each was either black or a deep ruddy burgundy verging on reddish-black. All had dark-tinted windows.

Then I looked back to the condo’s street-facing entrance and saw something totally novel, even if absurd: the condo had its name permanently stone-etched just above the doorway — one letter on each grey column in something like Caslon type. It read “THE VAMPIREY” — which had me burst out laughing to the point of waking up. My last thought was “OMG, this is where all goths and steampunks will move to once they’ve made it!”

Yet about ten minutes later, something else struck me: whenever new condo towers are marketed and go up in Toronto, they get festooned with florid, appealing names like The Burano, Museumhouse, Minto775, M5V, and so on. Once these units are sold and construction is over with, however, these names vanish almost overnight, leaving them to be known only by a generic street address.

These condo towers quickly become the faceless, inaccessible monoliths to all save those who actually live in them. They become Borg-like citadels of oblivion, like place-robbing zombies whose collective presence is impossible to ignore, yet impossible to distinguish from one another. They become this annoyance because they are everywhere, yet virtually impossible to label for the sake of explaining to other people. And whenever a condo project obliterates a former building whose name — even informal ones like “the Addison Cadillac building” — was remembered by most, then it becomes much harder to describe the space immediately surrounding the new development.

We genuinely despise what we cannot name when we know it plainly exists. These condos have become the morphological zombies of our urban landscape (which is sort of fitting given our city’s cultural love affair with the undead).

Our ire for buildings in the “core” — the downtown CBD — doesn’t seem to stick quite the same way, because it is relatively easy to name-drop Scotia Plaza or way-find to Bay-Adelaide Centre. These names imprint a sense of identity and a symbolic presence which helps to define their immediate surroundings with a notion of identifiable place. Creating this sense of place in turn creates geographical “bookmarks” for collective memory recall by citizens and even visitors.

Then there’s the new Trump Tower which will probably continue to be the Trump Tower long after it’s completed, just as Donald Trump’s towers have kept their names elsewhere. For that reason, his tower here will probably be tolerated a lot more readily than, say, “West 833,” because as a place, Trump Tower is defining a lasting identity and character — not because Donald Trump will be remembered for being a nice guy on The Apprentice (as if).

But we also remember an otherwise generic name like “1 King Street West.” Why? As an address, it signifies not only a spatially and historically distinguished location in one of the most established intersections of the city, but it is also noteworthy for its peculiar, yet distinctively razor-thin form. In a rare case like this, branding by using only the street address actually works out, because the building’s unique features support part of that brand.

As for the rest of these high rise condos? Their architecture is seldom remarkable enough to stake a presence of place within the city’s fabric, and their addresses are as unremarkable as any other.

For this reason, it becomes a question of useful versus poor psychogeography for citizens and visitors alike: how do you tell somebody that 832 Bay Street will direct you toward Toronto police headquarters? If the Burano — as it has been known during sales and construction — were to permanently (and prominently) maintain that name on its exterior façade for many decades to come, then it would also ground itself as a memorable place at a particular area of Bay Street. Over time, this would help to embed a collective memory for what it is and where in town it can be found. Interestingly, some of these developer name proposals do stick around on paper, mostly for real estate listings, but they are never prominently displayed on the building’s exterior.

So what I propose is the following: a municipal planning by-law amendment to oblige all condominium developers to settle upon a name and to permanently brand that condo by prominently displaying that name on the exterior of the building, somewhere between ground and roof level, subject to approval by city council and/or the OMB.

Street addresses integrated into the name of a condo would be restricted, if not prohibited. This would place the onus on creating showcase names while also defining the physical space around which that building is placed (the name would be recorded with the Land Registry Office along with all the other information it collects anyway when architects, engineers, and partners agree on specs).

This would also revive a practice common to buildings developed during the early part of last century — a practice seemingly jettisoned after the 1960s when Toronto’s first condo towers were being erected. It is also a long-standing practice to name all buildings in places like the UK.

Applied this way, sometime in the near future it would mean more to explain to a lost tourist that a particular restaurant is located at the Museumhouse rather than at 206 204 Bloor Street West (the official address has changed at least once), since it is more likely to be placed on tourist and commercial maps by name than by some generic number. It will also mean that nearby businesses will be able to refer to their location as being “adjacent to the Museumhouse over on Bloor street.”

With compulsory naming on permanent display, no longer will every condo succumb to the loathed syndrome of becoming another zombie tower.