Exiles of Identity: How my architecture thesis started my art career

My overlay work began during my Masters of Architecture thesis at the University of Toronto in 2011.  My thesis research focused on the rampant condo development in Toronto’s CityPlace, and the lack of neighbourhood and identity associated with “condo neighbourhoods” such as these.  

I was initially inspired by Bernd and Hilla Becher, German artists and conceptual photographers.  Their work focused on categorizing industrial buildings such as water towers.  They took a series of photographs of one typology, and organized them into a grid based on their subtle differences.  They took an iconic image found all over the world, and laid it bare in an attempt to boil it down to its essence.  But I felt I could take this a step further.

I began by photographing all of the condo towers in CityPlace and arranging them in a grid.  In trying to organize them, I realized that the similarities were so drastic, that I could make one single image that represented the whole of CityPlace.  This lead to the first overlay, which to me, represented a blurry memory of CityPlace.

After I presented my thesis, this image was the most popular and most commented on by the jurors.  After graduating, I decided to continue on with my overlay technique in the Grand Central Terminal Sketchbook competition.

A more widely-known influence of mine is the Cubists, in particular, Picasso’s Nude Descending a Staircase.  This image also takes several moments and represents them in a single image.  This is the spirit and feeling I strive to achieve with my work.

Lastly, my work was highly influenced by Edweard Muybridge and his invention, the photo gun.   His photographic studies were monumental works in the study of motion.  They paved the way for early motion picture projection. 

Below is an excerpt from my thesis text, along with some of the final imagery:



No one lives together in the contemporary city anymore.  Even surrounded by millions of people, we sit alone in coffee shops, each on our own devices, in virtual solitude.  Ideas of 'public' and 'social' have been replaced by residential real estate, which favours pure individualization.  High rise apartments are purchased specifically for their peace, quiet and anonymity, by those who seem to not to care about tenants more than two floors below them.  Life in the condo village is event-less, constituting the perfect background into which one can merge invisibly.  This can be attributed to the functional efficiencies of the modernist slab tower, individualization of utilities, and the contemporary real estate.  It is not that we don't care about the person who lives ten floors below us, it is that we live in a world that discourages engagement by putting obstacles and barriers in our way.  The seriality of modern architecture has intensified the isolation of the individual down to a cell.

In times of increasing isolation, it is opportune for people to abandon the task of individual identity-making to form a solidarity of greater unity and collective identity, for the advantages of communal immunity.  The dominant mode of collective urban living, the condominium, is in need of reconsideration, not of thoughtless stamping on every emerging downtown core.  To increase the health of the occupants of a high rise condominium, each of them boxed up into the sky, we need something that will give residents a strong feeling of identity.  The well-being and sustainability of people living in dense high-rise cities depends us living together for a common future.  We must radically reconfigure the condominium, as we know it, accommodating programs spanning multiple levels, across multiple buildings, and even multiple neighbourhoods.  As living and working conditions have started moving toward the atomization of individuals living on their own, is certain is that the link between immunity and community has had to be thought out in a new ways.  It is the only way for us to live together with a minimum of conflict and strife while maintaining freedom of choice.  How to achieve unity in spite of difference and how to preserve difference in in spite of unity.
For all the proximity of its condominium towers to the many eclectic neighbourhoods of downtown Toronto, Concord CityPlace, located on Toronto's harbourfront, belongs to a different world. This is in no small part due to the fact that this mode of urban planning is imported from across the continent. Bottled, capped, and distributed far and wide, Vancouverism has spread the globe as a new ideology promoting an urbanism of density and public amenity. The New York Times describes Vancouverism as "an urban style characterized by tall, but widely separated, slender towers interspersed with low-rise buildings, public spaces, small parks, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and facades to minimize the impact of a high density population." 
Architect Arthur Erickson is credited by some with developing the concept in the mid 1950s, in a never-realized development called "Project 56," a pencil sketch of downtown Vancouver showing soaring residential towers sitting atop townhouse podiums. His vision was translated into Vancouver's 1991 Downtown Plan, which established the small plate high rise tower on townhouse base typology that is the architectural face of Vancouverism, along with Social Bonus Zoning, and the notion that developers, not taxpayers, would help pay for public amenities in new districts. Coupled with this plan, was the purchase of the former World EXPO 86 grounds in 1989 by Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing, and the construction of Concord Pacific Place, precursor to Toronto's Concord CityPlace. It was with this, the continent's largest planned community, that Vancouver found its place on the world stage, through seductive imagery and a packaged narrative of being the most "livable city."
Today, Erickson's concept has been brought into fruition, and Vancouver has been bestowed its global reputation for doing one thing well: building condos higher and denser than any other spot on the continent. Because of its love affair with tall, thin towers on townhouse bases, Vancouverism is replacing Manhattanism as the go-to scheme for contemporary city building.
For all of its praises and accolades, the Vancouver style can alternatively be seen as a cookie cutter approach to high-rise high-density development. It is essentially a planner-and-develop-driven model which has left little room for architectural reconsideration of the basic premise of high-rise housing. After twenty years of development, Vancouver has produced no architectural gems in all of its residential towers. Overly reliant on ‘‘best practices’’ and ‘‘precedent studies,’’ solutions to city's complex urban problems are no longer solved through rigorous analysis and critical thinking, but through efficiency and the application of trendy best practices.
Then there is the issue of street life. While the Site Plan of Concord Pacific Place, Vancouver bases of the towers were designed specifically to enliven the street and provide the perfect setting for social interaction, most visitors to condominium neighbourhoods will notice a conspicuous lack of it. The effect has been the feeling of the unsustainable suburbs invading the downtown core; that of a vertical gated community. A 2007 report on the consequences of high-rise living concludes that there are numerous psychological and social problems with condo residents, such as increased fear and anxiety, behavioural and learning disorders in children, and increased suicides. Additionally, residents of high rise towers were found to have fewer friends, and less cognitively complex views of these friends.  This could be attributed to the increased anonymity that naturally accompanies the larger number of people in tall buildings, and the extremely serial nature of residential units.
One cannot speak of the consequences without noting the many potential benefits boasted by the Vancouverist livable city: expansive views, greater area for green space, less noise, crime, and maintenance work.  But what about the non-transferable aspects of condominium living? Proximity to a large number of services, transportation options, and neighbours is now being sold as an amenity. But what happens when that access is only perceived, and not actually there, and we take away the picturesque backdrop of mountains and ocean, and look at Vancouver's condominium-crazed downtown core in a different context.

In 2011, the principles behind the Vancouver style have been tested through export and transplantation into major cities across the globe such as Calgary, San Diego, Dallas, Shanghai, and Toronto. The condos of harbourfront Toronto, more than a decade in the making, are still no where near completion. Yet it is all too clear that Vancouver, the most livable city since 2002, has failed to manifest itself in downtown Toronto. It is no wonder that a kit of parts urbanism strategy has not born the same fruit on all soil. By replicating the same approach to condo living in every city and every building, we have failed to reconsider the true issues facing high-rise living today.
Canada’s largest city never generated “Torontism” because the city is not a one-liner, but a diverse place that does many things.  Dozens of multicultural neighbourhoods pack downtown Toronto full of street life. A walk through Concord CityPlace only yields the opposite, a disconnected and autonomous island of iconic glass tubes, cut off from the city by a railway corridor.


What used to be just a pool and a gym, has now expanded to a seemingly endless list of amenities that condo-seekers are requiring in their prospective purchases.  Salons, theatres, galleries, spas, and supermarkets, are now just a few of the spaces that are seen as the norm in the modern cruise ship-like condominium.  This phenomenon has spawned a new building type: the presentation centre, where seductive images and brochures try to sell the unbuilt based on these amenities.  The architecture of condo development has become less important than the promotional literature, which carefully vies for the attention of a particular segment of the market, who are interested in a particular lifestyle.

The marketing attempts to speak to people who want to reward themselves with a higher level of living.  But more often than not, it does more to detract me from purchasing then it does what the marketing team’s intended efforts are. Condo marketers are too concerned about building a brand and an image around a condo that fits into their marketing personas. Personas that don’t represent one of their actual buyers but the average likes and dislikes of their potential customers. While many of us are normal people, we’re not statistically average. The marketers then develop a plan, they brief the agents and the agents repeat the story and the vision ad nauseum via sales pitches and flash websites  
Recently, condominium projects didn’t have to listen to their customers, their was enough demand and the market was moving so quickly they didn’t need to. But they may soon have to listen.  Every development which sells its location as ideal, may need to hear that their location is not optimal, and come up with a plan to address it.  If a marketer is going to sell a condo as a place where you can ‘Revel in what you create’ then they will need to really give the customer the opportunity to create. Why is it that we can customize our $10,000 cars more than can can customize our $500,000 lofts?  Perhaps when customers are given more than two choices for their kitchen counters, tdeveloper-driven condo market, which has limited architects to designing only 1% of the design of the