Untitled (View from the CN Tower)
Archival inkjet prints on cotton paper . 1200 x 900 mm . Edition 3 . 2002–

The CN Tower presents an opportunity to view a city from a uniquely unconventional perspective – either through the panoramic windows out to the horizon or better, through a section of glass floor to the tiny cars below. Yet if you are a foreign tourist to Toronto then you have more than likely flown in an aeroplane and been witness to even more remarkable vistas, and at considerably more risk. Despite nearly a century of public air travel; skyscrapers; hot air balloons; airships; hang-gliding; parasailing; bungee jumping; skydiving and the near public thoroughfare that has become Everest; Kilamanjaro and the Materhorn, there remains a constant attraction to manmade spectacles like the CN Tower – the world’s tallest building is visited by over two million tourists a year.

Skyscrapers, both achievable and fantastical, have loomed large in prophetic fiction. Plans to supersede the world’s tallest skyscraper of the day (currently the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur) have frequently appeared as novelty segments in world news throughout the last century. The current skyscraper forecast is the ‘megastructure’ – an impossibly huge edifice that architects propose will supply everything a dweller could need or want from work and leisure. Had it been built, Sir Norman Foster's 1999 proposal - The Millennium Tower in Tokyo Bay - would have been 800 metres tall, three times the size of the Eiffel Tower. But most of these ostentatious plans are usually the result of egomaniacal fantasy - like Le Corbusier's Radiant City or Wright's Mile-High Illinois. However, the pursuit of scale as a visual signifier of affluence and power still holds its appeal. The high-rise metropolis is the recurring setting of where the people of tomorrow will be (or ‘should’ be) living - usually all driving cars in the sky and living in minimally furnished apartments hundreds of stories in the air. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Bladerunner and The Fifth Elementa constant signifier of the future is always high density living at great scale, usually a melting of Tokyo and New York.

Until the fateful Hindenberg crash of 1936, airships were a central component of these future forecasts and briefly a reality - a silent, luxurious mode of transport that signified the modern, urban and mechanised future for the first quarter of the previous century. As a viable mode of public air-travel, the airship was among the first aircraft to allow citizens to view their cities as never before, a visual phenomenon akin to the first images of earth from space. For the Russian photographer, Boris Ignatovich, a sightseeing flight over Leningrad in 1931 presented startling new possibilities for unconventional perspectives, he produced a series of aerial views in which the city is rendered as an abstract, constructivist composition. At the time of my sightseeing visit to the CN Tower in 2002 I had never heard of this relatively obscure Russian, but I had been given a small monograph of one of his contemporaries - namely Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who during 1928 made a series of at least five photographs taken from the Berlin radio tower. One particularly arresting image from this series, Untitled (view from the Berlin Radio Tower), shot in gloomy winter light led to the three snapshots I took whilst on holiday in Toronto.

Peter Ustinov deemed Toronto ‘New York built by the Swiss’, an apt description, the city is inimitably well-ordered, clean and ruthlessly regimented by a grid plan that marches inland from the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Despite a mid-sized downtown district of numerous high-rises, most notably The Dominion Centre by Mies van der Rohe and the Toronto City Hall, the majority of the city is mid to low scale development that spans outwards rather than up. The modest skyline is made surreal by the towering stature of the CN Tower that succeeds not only in dwarfing its surroundings but also disappearing into low cloud. The view of Toronto from across the bay of Lake Ontario at Niagara-on-the-Lake sees the tops of several high-rises just visible above the horizon line, their summits taper off on either side of the CN Tower giving the impression of an urban island seemingly built for the sole purpose of providing this structure with a suitable base.

The section of glass floor on the first public access level of the CN Tower is most patently a tourist directed attraction. This kind of tourist market reasoning presupposes that if public access to the upper reaches of the world’s tallest structure is not incredible enough, the visitor should also be given a chance to soil themselves whilst looking directly down on the city 400 metres below. This a uniquely sublime experience, it is definitively “a sort of delightful horror”. (1) The glass floor represents, as a tourist idiom, something akin to glass-bottomed boats or helicopter safari tours offered to sunburnt tourists at overpriced tropical resorts and nature reserves. The glass is the medium between exposure and comfort - the contained spectacle, adventure and excitement without the real physical threat or involvement - it forwards thrilling entertainment over real hazard. This view can be projected further: from glass-bottomed boats to the CN Tower’s glass floor and by extension to glass-hull aeroplanes, a popular Modernist-era design feature of the sky-cars we should supposedly all be driving by now. It need not be said that such aeroplanes are as unlikely today as sky-cars were during the 1950s Popular Science conjecture on life in the future and yet this is the very appeal of the CN Tower’s glass floor. It is a unique circumstance to experience something similar to a glass-bottomed gondola of a painfully slow-moving airship nostalgically cruising the Modern metropolis. The lives of its citizens become entirely inconsequential seen from such altitude. The views from the panoramic windows of the CN Tower present a similar sense of nostalgia for a distant and optimistic past, one that forecast extensively on how future generations would live their lives post-2000 and to various degrees seemingly still influences our present expectations and disappointments:

"2001 has changed our lives: the way we travel, the way we build buildings, the way we see our world. It has shown us a darker side, which challenges our easy assumption that life must inevitably get faster and easier… Thirty years ago, the film director Stanley Kubrick encouraged us to expect that by 2001 we would be travelling to the moon in rocket ships like hotels, with the speed and convenience of a flight across the Atlantic. The world has indeed become a smaller place in the last 30 years. Yet we aren’t shuttling to the moon just yet. And down here on Earth it has taken my colleagues and me longer to make our way into Afghanistan than Kubrick envisaged for his entire space odyssey." (2)

According to the future forecasts of the 1960s, life after the year 2000 would be dominated by the issue of leisure time. Social scientists engaged in lengthy debates around this issue: what would happen when people worked less, retired young, and had a surplus of free time? Maybe wax the sky-car or take in a round of virtual golf. Alvin Toffler proposed that society would even need ‘leisure counsellors’ to treat rampant apathy and indolence. In our time-obsessed age of instant deadlines and gratification this conjecture could not be more implausible. The return to the tourist present, vaguely shop-soiled by comparison with utopian visions, is a physical one whilst standing on the CN Tower’s glass floor, watching tiny cars creep very much earth-bound past a frozen golf course and onwards to office blocks or double-storey townhouses. The only movement on this glass-hull gondola is the dizzying effects of vertigo. A lack of movement comes with the realisation that the mechanics of Western urban living have not shifted very far from when Moholy-Nagy climbed a freezing Berlin radio tower to get a better view of the citizens below as they caught trains to work, walked to the shops or drove to double storey townhouses far off camera. The contemporary utopian visions of an effortless modern future-present, still strongly influenced by those of the past, are available to and lived by those with the agency to do so. The vast majority essentially live in the realm of ‘a better life with analogue’, and only aspire to the lifestyle of product-based consumerist ‘bliss’ forwarded by advertising - a medium specifically constructed to induce mass inadequacy and unattainable desire. The frozen golf course, busy over-head freeways and low-rise expanse I photographed from the CN Tower remind me most of the minutely incremental shifts in human progression. That the commute to and from home through various forms of Wright’s Broadacre City, in an earth-bound vehicle accompanied by dreams of better, will be a Western, urban constant for a considerable time to come. Hopefully the future shift will be in who is driving and who is home-owning.

 

Notes:

(1)
Burke, E.; “On Taste, On the Sublime and Beautiful, On the French Revolution”; Collier; New York; 1909; p.114

(2)
Simpson, J.; ”Journeys Into The Unknown”; bbcworld.com; 2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
REFERENCES –  
 
 
Untitled (view from the Berlin Radio Tower)
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy : 1928
© Hattula Moholy-Nagy
 
 
 
Metropolis
Directed by Fritz Lang : 1927
© UFA
 
 
 
Soviet prodaganda poster
Petrograd : 1922
© Novosti Press Agency
 
 
 
CN Tower
Toronto : 1976
© www.cntower.com
 
   
  Smokestacks and Factories of a Leningrad Industrial Complex
Boris Ignatovich : 1931
© Museum Ludwig, Cologne
 
  Michael MacGarry, contemporary African art, African art, contemporary art, Africa, sculpture  
 
 
 
 
Michael MacGarry