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Fenestration Forum – August 2015

Behind the windows


August 25, 2015
By Brian Burton

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The National Film Board of Canada recently won an International Emmy Award for its innovative documentary titled Highrise/Out My Window. The compelling web documentary allows viewers the opportunity to take a glimpse “through the windows” at the lives of 14 different high rise residents. The video can be found at outmywindow.nfb.ca.

It’s an appropriate topic to explore because of the increasing number of residential high-rises in Canadian urban centers and around the globe. The subject is also relevant because if you were somehow able to strip away the balconies and railings you could clearly see the tremendous number of windows and sliding doors that a typical 20-story high-rise tower contains. If architecture is supposed to reflect how a building’s occupants live in the space, and if we are involved in building architecture, then this film can tell us something about how we should design our projects.

The video includes comprehensive interviews with high-rise residents that explore their lifestyles and relationships in what amounts to a form of communal living within these high-density communities. Many are over 20 stories in height and contain more than 200 separate rental units. The director and producer discovered that many close relationships developed with residents who share similar interests. The in-depth interviews from many cities around the globe also demonstrated how closely knit some of these communities can become. In many ways they reflect the cultural diversity of the countries where they are located. Particularly interesting were the interviews with residents living in Havana, Cuba, where music, art and social activities link many of the residents together. They share a common environment in what the director refers to as “vertical cities.” A similar sense of community was quite apparent in the interviews that were conducted in Toronto. In addition to the regular residential units, some buildings have over 5,000 square meters of communal spaces including courtyards, roof terraces and communal dining areas where tenants can gather and socialize with their neighbours.

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In a recent interview the director, Katerina Cizek, specifically mentions being influenced by Toronto’s well-known Tower Renewal Project, an on-going initiative that was originally started by former Toronto mayor, David Miller. With almost 2,000 high-rise residential towers, most of which are at least 20 stories in height, it’s well-known that Toronto has the highest density of these high-rise residential buildings in North America with the exception of New York City. The reasons we’ve built so many actually involves a combination of changing construction technology and Toronto’s complex urban demographics. Most of these structures were built almost 50 years ago and most of the discussion lately has focused on how to refurbish these structures economically.

The documentary also points out that for the first time in history, more people live in cities and that most urban growth is taking place on the perimeter of cities where many high-rise towers are constructed.

The documentary explains the reasons for the construction of numerous clusters of high-rise residential buildings in Toronto. These clusters are like a record of urban trends and surges in population growth as Canadians moved into the city at an explosive rate in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Toronto was ready, willing and able in those days when it came to building high-rises and had all the necessary prerequisites which included the motivation, population and skilled work force to effectively accomplish the task. The city itself and the suburbs also had the beginnings of a mass transit system and the financial capital available with many individuals willing to invest and financial institutions willing to extend credit. Another factor that is often overlooked is that Toronto, as an urban center, had plenty of room to grow.  

All these factors contributed to the rapid growth in high-rise construction right up to the ‘70s. Toronto saw a tremendous apartment boom. In fact during the ‘60s nearly half the city’s housing stock and 77 per cent of all housing starts were apartments of this type. It seems even then, Toronto was at the forefront of the vertical cities concept.


Brian is involved with an innovative multidisciplinary firm that specializes in technical business writing: Award Bid Management Services (award-bid-management-services.com). The firm assists companies interested in selling goods and services to governments and institutions. He can be reached at brianburton1995@gmail.com.


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