mirror’s edge

Chicago is known in the world of architecture as the birthplace of the modern skyscraper. The motivating force behind much of this vertical way of thinking was one of the most destructive events in the history of the United States as a whole – the Great Chicago Fire. In rebuilding itself from the cinders of the inferno, the city began reaching ever higher. Architects like Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan dreamed up ever taller edifices, financed by railroad and steel money pouring into the reborn city’s affluent upper crust. Before long, the city was home to artificial canyons, the sunlight at ground level dictated by the heights of the soaring buildings lining the streets. By the time the 1990s came to an end, Chicago was host to not only the tallest building in the world (at the time, the Sears Tower), but an entire skyline full of towering monoliths of glass, steel, and concrete.

Click on any photo in this post to view it large on black.

My experience with rooftopping began in Toronto back in 2009, giving rise to my current habit of getting on the tops of buildings in pursuit of photographs. Late winter 2011 saw an opportunity to visit Chicago – fertile ground for seeking heights. With only a few days to spend in the Windy City, plans to this end needed to be made carefully. Tops on the list for this trip was a 40-odd story skyscraper conveniently located on Michigan Avenue, the ‘Magnificent Mile’. This glittering strip of pavement is one of the most expensive streets in the world for real estate; a mere square foot of room on this high-rolling boulevard will cost you a cool $127/mo in rent. Let me put that into context: this absurd going rate means that a tiny 250ft² shoebox of an apartment would cost you more than $30000 every month. Well-heeled is a nice way of describing the residents of this street; however, despite all the massive piles of cash money all over Michigan Avenue, the best views here cannot be purchased; they must be attained.

I headed to the building in question (which I will refer to as the H) to see what the upper reaches of the stairwells held in store. It was late afternoon, the lobby packed with travelers and patrons for the establishment’s swanky first-floor bar. Thankfully, the herd of people made it easy to dodge the prying eyes of the concierge and head for the lifts. The ride up the elevator to the top floor (a base camp, so to speak) is one of the best parts of rooftopping – nothing but anticipation and butterflies in one’s stomach as the numbers tick upwards.

The door opened at my floor with an insistent *ding*, and out I went. The corridor seemed to be vacant, save for a housekeeper’s cart propping open a door on the far end. Unfortunately, this next part gets a bit fuzzy (funny how that works), but the next thing I can remember, the roof door was opening and I was face-to-face with Chicago’s Near North side. Paydirt.

The next day, I hopped an ‘L’ train and headed into the city to revisit the H after dark. However, the central Loop neighborhood was my first destination as the sun began to drop behind the artificial horizon of Chicago’s skyline. So named for the layout of the elevated railway encircling it, the Loop is the center of Chicago, and home to many of its tallest buildings. However, sometimes in the quest for ever greater heights, it’s easy to forget the shorter buildings that offer cityscapes that are just as appealing. Blue hour was fast approaching, so I made for some strategically located rooftops near the elevated.

After dark, I met up with Katherine of Chicago and headed for the H’s now neon infused rooftop. The mob that had been in the lobby the previous day was still present albeit in smaller size, allowing us to once again take the lifts all the way up. A few minutes later, out into the frigid night we went, the world suddenly shrinking as the door opened to the seemingly endless cityscape. This was a scene I was not prepared for; the jaw-dropping, brightly lit vistas on the skyscrapers to our north and south and the great, tangled blanket of streetlights in the neighborhoods and suburbs to the west.

While some fellow rooftoppers have used the fisheye lens to great effect, as of late I’ve been a fan of the multi-shot panorama. The idea here is to pivot the camera around on the tripod through a given arc, taking overlapping images all the way across. These images are then combined (after a lot of thinking by my computer) into a single image.

Bear in mind this image is actually much larger than this blog will hold, so I strongly recommend clicking on this one to view large.

Chicago is not a city known for its mild winters, and tonight, the arctic blast coming off of Lake Michigan was amplified threefold by the heights. After our fingers were good and numb, we descended back to the street below, the clueless concierge politely holding the doors open for us as we exited.

Michigan Avenue at ground level is something altogether different, our peaceful rooftop sanctuary replaced by honking taxis and hapless tourists stumbling all over the sidewalks. Ah, well…there’s always tomorrow night!

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toronto heights

Canada’s largest city is home to some of the tallest skyscrapers in North America. Besides the instantly recognizable CN Tower, lesser-known edifices like the Bay Adelaide Centre and Commerce Court still crack the 700 foot (210m) mark. Recently, the rooftops of Toronto have been fertile ground for fellow photogs; Toronto has been called the best city for rooftopping in the world. It’s easy to see why: a downtown core full of tall buildings and cranes (engaged in the process of making more tall buildings), the potential for fantastic, brilliantly lit nighttime cityscapes, and a certain degree of luck with roof access doors. It’s a cocktail that goes down smooth every time.

After cracking Millbrook Prison with some of Toronto’s finest explorers, I went in search of a new point of view on the concrete canyons I’d been exploring at ground level for the last week. Joined by Jono and Dresden (names changed for mystery’s sake), we set our sights on the modestly tall CF Tower – a 36 floor monolith of steel and glass right smack in the middle of Toronto on Queen Street East. Past the security desk and into the elevators went the three of us, and a short vertical ride later, we were facing down the last door between us and the sky. Jono turned the handle, the catch drew back unhindered by a lock, and the magic portal was opened.

parapet
Three of Toronto’s tallest buildings keep watch over the city; from l-r, Scotia Plaza (902 ft/275m), Bay Adelaide West (715 ft/218m), and First Canadian Place (978 ft/298m). To the right of the downtown core is the CN Tower, dwarfing the skyscrapers at more than 1800 ft (550m) high.

From up here, perspective definitely changes. Aside from the sheer height (for reference, 465.88 ft/142m), turning all the pedestrians and streetcars below into pawns on a child’s play set, there exists up here a strange kind of solitude. Toronto at ground level is a busy, sometimes frenetic environment; people rushing everywhere with something to do, drivers cutting off each other in attempts to make green lights, the sound of streetcars clanking down Queen East, music, everything. However, at this moment, on this rooftop, there were only the three of us, and for all we cared we could be the only people in the city. The only sounds up here were the occasional *whirrrrrr* from the elevator machinery nearby, the muffled, reverberating soundtrack to the city below, and the rush of the wind coming off the lake, intensified by our present altitude. The roof was a fantastic perch, ringed by a small rail system used to carry the equipment needed to lower the window washers on their rounds. This ring of metal, as luck would have it, made an excellent place to anchor tripods.

Downtown Toronto was just starting to empty its buildings of cubicle dwellers, so the three of us decided to slip out among them, saying goodbye before heading off to catch subways and streetcars destined for far-flung parts of the city. Later that evening, Dresden and I headed for the King Edward to meet up with Hilite and pay a visit to not only the long-abandoned 17th floor ballroom, but the summit of the building itself. The King Eddy, which opened in 1903, is one of Toronto’s oldest and most well-heeled hotels. We dressed up for the occasion, my pea coat and D’s leather gloves and classy scarf passing the rich test given to us by the eyes of the front desk concierge as we walked in. We proceeded up the elevator, down a hallway to an out-of-the-way stairwell, and up another flight of stairs until we found an unlocked door to the vaunted 17th floor. We were in.


The King Eddy’s Crystal Ballroom was last used in 1978.


Dresden gets up close and personal with Toronto.

Farther up the magical staircase, another unlocked door led us to the room housing the hotel’s six humming elevator motors. Yet another door, again mysteriously unlocked, let us out into the chilly, cloudless night. From up here, the sleepy city still buzzed, illuminated from all sides by thousands of lights. The view from up here was simply staggering.


Couldn’t resist a little self-portraiture.


Dresden and Hilite make their way back down the magic stairwell.

After paying a visit to the Eddy, we made tracks to a pho restaurant just inside the Kensington Market neighbourhood. Out came big bowls of steaming broth, noodles and meat, and over these tasty midnight munchies we traded war stories, reminisced about long-demolished sites, and talked shop (all of us having some photographic pursuits). Toronto is known as the cradle of organized urban exploration, and the explorers who call this city their home are always knowledgeable about what’s under the surface of their glittering metropolis. Hilite was no exception; calm, well-spoken, and with his finger on the pulse of the city, intent on getting to the bottom (or the top) of whatever urban mission he set himself on. Our conversation was laced with names like Consumers’ Glass, the Royal Constellation, and the legendary Malt. Some of these places would see visits before my departure from Canada, but which to choose? Our bowls now dry of soup, Dresden and I said our goodbyes to our comrade and headed off to the subway again, retreating to the dark reaches off of Bloor Street to make our plans for the next night.