An empathetic twist

For over a century, a simple dilemma has vexed architects. How to escape the formal monotony of a series of identical stacked plates, without losing the efficiency of the canonical high-rise formula? Through a series of astute formal moves, and by evoking empathy, Chinese architecture practice MAD has achieved a rare breakthrough.


Architecture / Matthew Allen

This article was originally published in Domus 963 November 2012

In the initial uptake of MAD's Absolute Towers, critics largely gave in to the temptation to focus on their symbolic importance for Mississauga (a city near Toronto in Canada) and for China. And who can blame them? The project sits at the rare convergence of two unusual occurrences: an international architecture competition staged by an edge city on the rise, and the first win in such a competition by a Chinese firm. It appeared to be a story of the value added by contemporary architecture and a sign of increasing competition for Western architects, both within China and now on their home turf. But can the intrigue of these towers really be reduced to astute marketing mixed with geopolitics? The subtext of this story has been that only circumstantial details differentiate the Absolute Towers from scores of other curvy towers the world over, and that their importance for architecture is negligible. However, what if the resonance of the Absolute Towers were no accident, but a result of uncommonly astute formal moves that are best understood within longer narratives of highrise buildings and empathetic form? The real test of MAD's project is whether it can stand up to a closer consideration of what their architectural importance may be.

Encountered on the street, the Absolute Towers are enigmatic and shifting, even voluptuous. They appear carefully controlled, but their underlying geometry is far from obvious. Driving or walking by causes the towers' profiles to change continuously, and it would require significant mental acrobatics to map the relationship between profiles and construct a complete mental model of the building. From a closer vantage point, the geometric enigma remains, but a feature at another scale begins to dominate. The continuous balconies that wrap every floor make the towers begin to resemble a stack of plates, piled cartoonishly and precariously high, even teetering and ready to topple.

Opening: With heights of 179.5 and 161 metres, the two buildings have 56 and 50 storeys respectively. They are part of an urban development scheme that includes five towers in all, three of which were designed by other architects. Above: The Absolute Towers rise in Mississauga, a municipality with some 713,443 inhabitants that developed autonomously from a suburb of Toronto to become Canada’s sixth most populous city. The towers were built after a limited architectural competition launched by two private developers: Fernbrook Homes and Cityzen Development Group

Obvious as it may seem now, the idea of a tall building as a series of identical plates was of course the defining conceptual leap of the modern skyscraper. Previously— before the elevator—floors had been easy to differentiate by the amount of sweat it took to ascend the stairs. MAD's reflection on the nature of floor plates made its debut in their first project: their entry to the World Trade Center ideas competition, Floating Island. Ma Yansong, the founding principal at MAD, cited this earlier project as the theoretical ambition for the Absolute Towers: a conceptual inversion of the old World Trade Center's Twin Towers by Minoru Yamasaki. Yamasaki's towers embodied a "powerful modern philosophy" that is "all about duplication" and has the effect of "making people feel themselves to be small, and that they have to show respect". MAD's proposal attempts to deny symbolic power as much as possible by shifting the formal register from "masculine" to "feminine" (from straight-edged to curvy) and trading an image of duplication for a singular surface that must be inhabited to be seen. Floating Island is an undulating parkscape held up by a series of massive trunks, as if a single floor plate had been extracted from a skyscraper and allowed to grow into a flowing landscape. This fantasy of having another chance and a new ground in the air is only a slightly more extreme version of the basic idea of all tall buildings: multiplying real estate in the air.

The project dismisses the conventional idea of the skyscraper as a rigid structure by shifting attention towards softer forms that suggest the human body. It is therefore not surprising that Mississauga’s inhabitants have nicknamed the two buildings “Marilyn Monroe Towers”

The monomaniacal duplication of the old World Trade Center was one version of this multiplication trick. As tools of real estate, tall buildings demand uncompromising practicality; any deviation from the most efficient solution means making a sacrifice for architecture. We can call this particular instance of the battle between the desires for optimisation and excess the "Chicago Frame dilemma", after the city that perfected the technical solution to tall office buildings and created an architectural conundrum by narrowing architects' options considerably. The dilemma had already been identified by architects in the late 19th century, and was brilliantly restated at critical moments in the past century (by Rowe, Koolhaas and others) as a way of charting new theoretical routes. As with mathematical proofs to previously intractable contradictions, solutions to the "Chicago Frame dilemma", even if not immediately recognised, seem destined to become part of the critical canon.

The difference between MAD's two towers as bodies in space lies not in their plans, but in the cumulative effect of small rotations that follow different patterns in the vertical axis in each tower.

Continuous balconies distinguish the facades of these towers. The loadbearing walls are elongated and grow narrower in relation to the rotation of floor plans, while the balcony floor slabs are cantilevered

A problem like the "Chicago Frame dilemma" cannot, of course, be "solved", only thematised. Insofar as architecture aspires to modernist avant-garde status, architecture should begin by being about the technical limits of architecture. As one among many possible examples, an early "skyscraper about skyscrapers" by Mies van der Rohe—the unbuilt Glass Skyscraper project of 1922—accepts the necessity of a stack of identical plates, but juxtaposes them with an unexpectedly undulating exterior. The vertical sameness, usually taken for granted, becomes incongruous when paired with a free-form horizontal plane, and it takes centre stage; stacking becomes the subject of architecture. The Absolute Towers follow a similar strategy. Though impossible to know for certain from the outside, a glance at the plans reveals that the towers' floor plates are absolutely the same—a lemon shape—from top to bottom, and are every bit as unrelentingly lemon-shaped as Yamasaki's World Trade Center floor plates were square. Rather than stacking straight up in what amounts to an extrusion, each floor is rotated from the one below it: in the north "Marilyn Monroe" tower, for example, the rotation is 0.5 degrees near the top and bottom and 1 to 4 degrees in the middle. The economical formal move of successive rotation has consequences out of scale with its complexity, both inside and out. On the interior, concrete sheer walls and columns must appear and disappear and floor plans are subject to constant adjustment, and as a result no two condos have the same layout. There is an extreme disjunction between a simple idea (a single formal operation) and the complex difference it creates. The towers become host to relentless (though subtle) individuality, something exceptionally uncommon in high-rise residential buildings—and this difference is baked in to the structure and layout of every floor.

Participants in the final phase of the international competition by invitation, held between 2005 and 2006, included Boyarsky Murphy, Michel Rojkind, Quadrangle Architects, Studio MWM, MAD and Zeidler Partnership Architects

Paired with fine-tuned vertical variability, the use of successive rotation also gives the towers an undeniable— and undeniably contemporary—formal impact from the street. The Absolute Towers are unfailingly compared to human bodies; they require the anthropomorphic turn of thought that focused architectural modernism on abstract forms in space. Since the 19th century, the empathetic response has been ingrained in architects' generation and appreciation of form. But a look at a few of the buildings we empathise with most reminds us that not all bodies are the same. Frank Gehry's Dancing House (aka "Fred and Ginger") in Prague, for example, is the result of a process that begins and ends with the composition as a whole—it is a decidedly humanist body. The Absolute Towers, on the other hand, are clearly based on a parametric system, a result of computational rules. The difference between MAD's two towers as bodies in space lies not in their plans (which are all the same shape), but in the cumulative effect of small rotations that follow different patterns in the vertical axis in each tower. The two characters—one perhaps feminine, the other perhaps masculine—were specified by simple formulas: from floors x to y, rotate 0.5 degrees; from floors y to z, rotate 4 degrees; and so on. While the figures are still humanoid, they have a genetically engineered calibration—an android feel—that is at home in contemporary culture.

The towers rise above the intersection of two main thoroughfares (Hurontario and Burnhamthorpe) and have already assumed the role of gateway to the city. According to the architects, “These buildings are more than just a functional machine: they are a landmark. Their form is sculptural”

MAD's ambition for the Absolute Towers was not only to create forms we have feelings for, which is certainly required to create a symbolic impact, but—at the other end of the spectrum of empathy—to bring people together. The project is wrapped from top to bottom in balconies, and there are (sometimes) people inhabiting these private planes. We are led to identify in a unique way with the people we see on these balconies. The towers' shifting forms create a strange balance between anonymity and a sense of a personal address within the towers. Residents can easily pinpoint where they live— "halfway up that second curve"—but only in a general way. This blend of reciprocal voyeurism with something between anonymity and personal identification seems to be a serious game plan for balancing the conflicting forces needed to create a viable sense of community ex novo in an exurban environment. I will leave you with an image: a tornado of a tower, unattached to any podium, which draws people in from the city's main intersection and spins them out to the perimeter to see the other people living around them. It would be hard to find a better symbol of contemporary residential life in an evolving North American edge city. Matthew Allen

The author would like to thank Preston Scott Cohen, who suggested looking at the ways in which stacking has been thematized in tall buildings.

View by night of one of the towers

Excavating the foundations. The reinforced concrete skeleton required 61,900 m3 of cement and 9,210 tons of iron. The various floor plans all have the same helicoidal form. Each floor, however, rotates by half a degree at the base and top of the building, and by 1 to 4 degrees in its central part Nucleo • Core 1–4° 0.5°