Friday, 18 October 2013

Preview: CN Tower

I lived in Korea for two years, in 2004 and 2005. Among the many new cultural experiences I had in that time, I visited my first ever revolving restaurant. I lived in Daegu but on my first weekend in the country, happenstance saw me visiting Seoul, together with a New Zealand fellow called Handsome Matt. It was a highly entertaining weekend that cemented a lifelong friendship, despite us now being at opposing ends of the globe - most recently I saw Matt in Sydney, at the very beginning of the Wonder travels. Part of that weekend involved visiting the 237-metre-high Seoul Tower. It had, to our delight, a revolving restaurant. Here's a photo of us enjoying the experience.

It's fair to say that both of us were hugely enamoured by the revolving restaurant experience. What's not to like? Food, drink, and a slowly changing panorama of the city. Korea rather likes putting tall observation towers with revolving restaurants in the middle of their cities, and in the fresh excitement of youth we vowed to visit every single revolving restaurant in the world (also vowed with Matt: visit every escalator in Daegu, go ice fishing in Alaska for a month, have a child apiece by the same woman and put them in fierce competition with each other to determine who has the best genetics). Clearly, we didn't manage this, but we did at least visit the Daegu and Busan ones. They were great.

All these towers were no more than towers for towers' sake. They weren't useful, the Koreans just liked building tall towers. The revolving restaurants were there because, well, aside from an observation deck, what else do you put at the top of a big tower? But for the ultimate expression of a tower for towers' sake, you need to cross the Pacific, from Korea to Canada. There, in Toronto, is the daddy of tall towers, complete with two observation decks, the prerequisite revolving restaurant, and in the words of their official  guidebook from the 1980s, a "glittering night club". It is, of course, the CN Tower.

The CN Tower is big. For 31 years it was the biggest: the tallest freestanding structure on Earth - second only to cable-supported radio masts. It was only, finally, overtaken in 2007 by the Burj Khalifa, and remains today the 6th tallest freestanding structure on the planet and still the tallest in North America. Peaking at 553.34, it entirely dominates Toronto's skyline. Unquestionably it is the city's icon, the nation's icon even; as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Statue of Liberty is to New York, the Christ the Redeemer is to Rio de Janeiro, this slightly retro vision of the future is to Toronto.

The "CN" stands for Canadian National, the country's railway company - privatised since 1995 - and this goes some way into explaining the origins of the tower. In the middle of Toronto is a large area of railways and yards, and in the late 1960s there was a grand plan to develop it. It was prompted by the city council and seized on enthusiastically by Canadian National, who realised the vast potential for profit. By moving the railways and building upon the land, a huge new urban area would be created, and a lot of money generated for CN. In the midst of this excitement, the rail company pushed ahead with a bold plan: in a show of confidence they would build a gigantic, mostly unnecessary tower at the heart of this new area.

Actually, in fairness, there was a modicum of sense behind the proposal. The origins of a tower had come from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the national radio and TV broadcaster. The boom of skyscrapers during the 1960s meant that clear signals were no longer able to be reliably transmitted across the city: something tall was needed, and downtown would be the ideal spot. CBC approached CN to go into partnership, and the chairman of CN, a man called Norman MacMillan, immediately hollered "Hell yeah!", or whatever it is that Canadians say - "Hell yeah, eh?" I suppose. MacMillan loved the idea of a giant tower even though he didn't know anything about how it would be built, how tall it would be, or anything about it at all really. He just liked the idea of a big tower, and who can blame him?. And so even when CBC later pulled out, MacMillan and CN remained committed to building Toronto a tower.

As it happened, the ambitious urban plans for the city never occurred. In 1972, a new city council were elected and they were not fond of the plans (or their cost) at all. Progress slowed, ground to a halt, and were finally abandoned by 1975. But it was too late to stop the CN Tower, the focal point of it all. The ball was rolling, and work began in February 1973; three-and-a-half years later, in October 1976, the tallest structure on the planet officially opened.

Despite CBC pulling out, the CN Tower retained its function as a colossal telecoms tower, as it remains now. But that's not where the money is. After an initial budget of C$21 in 1973 (equivalent to £67 million today), the final cost ended up being C$57m (£181 million). But - no big deal. Because the revenue from the TV and radio business has ended up being incidental - the CN Tower is primarily a tourist attraction. Build something big, and people will come. And over two million people a year visit the CN Tower.

This was something the architect behind the tower, an ex-pat American called Ned Baldwin, recognised early on. He studied Walt Disney World for lessons on tourist management and crowd control, and how best to get people to part with their money. The CN Tower paid off the costs of construction in just 15 years.

So, I fully expect the CN Tower to cater for all my tourist needs. The Main Pod is the focal point - that's the bulbous bit that looks like a flying saucer about two-third of the way up that contains all the entertainment. It's seven storeys high, so is a pretty significant structure in its own right (it's bigger than some of my Wonders!). Naturally, I will dine at the restaurant, revolving once every 72 minutes (I'll ask if they can crank it up a notch). If Danielle gets lucky, I would have taken her to the "glittering night club" - but sadly it closed in 1991. It was called "Sparkles". A great loss. Of course, I'll go to up to near the very top, to the suitably retro named "Skypod", where the the highest observation deck in the world used to be. It's still there, but was superseded in 2008 by the Canton Tower (488 metres to CN's 447 metres). On a clear day there is apparently visibility for 100 miles. Recently too, back down at the Main Pod, the terrifying "EdgeWalk" has been added, whereby you can walk around outside on the top of the pod. This is appalling and wonderful and a stroke of genius by whoever came up with it - I will of course be parting with my money to do it.

As far as being a Wonder goes, the CN Tower has one main thing in its favour - height. It's the second tallest on my list, after the Burj Khalifa, and is fairly preposterous. It's that sense of improbability that makes the CN Tower notable. Inherently, it's not a splendid looking construction: space-age minimal and the sort of thing you expect to see portrayed in 1970s science fiction, but stretched out to 553 metres it suddenly acquires a striking visual appeal. It becomes quite audacious. I think it's pretty unlikely it's going to fill me with the sense of deep awe the very best buildings in the world do, but I think it will be great fun to visit nonetheless.

I'll be visiting the CN Tower some time next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.


  1. Hey! Awesome pre-article. I've just recently came back from Canada and absolutely loved the CN tower. Whilst you're there you should definitely check out the inner train station, that is a beautiful building

  2. Oh, and to add to the comment above, definitely go up the tower during the day, but make sure you hang around to see it externally at night. They have thousands of LED's that do some spectacular light shows at night and they change nightly (And seasonally) I've got some pictures I'd be happy to send you if you'd like to take a look :)

    1. Thanks, all good advice. I've heard that it's good to get quite a distance from the tower to appreciate it properly (as in my first main photo). I'll try and time that for a light show. I've Googled the train station - it looks pretty grand. I don't think I've got any trains stations on my list, but there are some incredible ones around the world - St Pancras in London, and the one in Mumbai springing to mind.

  3. To tip the balance, I was underwhelmed by the CN Tower. It's big, yes, but not especially pretty and the rest of the city doesn't make for an especially memorable view from the top. It's just a big concrete tower and I think it lacks a lot of the aesthetic merit that would cause you to rate it highly.

    1. I sometimes wonder if a super-high building is the best way to see a city. In London, there's the Monument to the Fire of London, by Christopher Wren, which only just pokes above the surrounding buildings - but wow, what a great view. Plus, it only costs £3. I suspect that the view from the Shard (which becomes less appealing every time I see it) isn't any better. A bit too much of a panorama and all the details a little too distant. I've not been up it mind you, and at around £30 a visit, I'm not likely to any time soon.

  4. In terms of height, especially for its time, it is certainly spectacular (disclaimer: I have never been to Canada). Personally for Canadian buildings I am more a fan of their grandiose railway hotels, of which Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City is one of the most famous examples, but it's not the only one. I would agree that as a symbol of Canada the CN Tower is one of the most recognisable.

  5. At night, you can see various colors of lights in the apartments nearby from inside the Tower. From outside, it changes colors depending on the night or season (Christmastime has green, red and white, during a Toronto Raptors Game it's red and purple for example). They just built a Ripley's Aquarium beside it and although i haven't been yet, I understand it's breathtaking. Enjoy your visit to my beautiful city. Come see Kensington Market and the St. Lawrence Market. Go north and south on Yonge street, see Yonge and Dundas Square with it's bright lights and screens. Visit the underground shopping centre, an entire mall underground beneath the city streets, called the PATH. :)


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