How do you measure the speed of a city? Scientifically, it’s been proven that the more populated and prosperous a metropolis is, the faster its foot traffic. Quite literally, the pace of life is equitable to a country’s economic productivity, and as life in general speeds up, we have quickened our strides at a rate that is 10 per cent more rapid than city dwellers a generation ago. More than ever, we’re determined to get to the next destination with maximum efficiency – noses down, minds racing.


A lot gets missed in all that urban hustle, including the theatre happening just above our heads, approximately ten stories up, and when standing on a street corner surrounded on all sides by glass towers. Up there, away from the chaos at ground level, the wide-open planes of glazed clading take on a life of their own. Light reflects and refracts in various directions and is in constant motion. Shadows and fragmented geometries from neighboring towers meld together, creating massive canvases of beautiful, abstract patterns that have an almost liquid appearance to them. It’s like an orchestra of movement, where sun, sky, passing clouds and streetcar wires mutate across untold acres of molten glass.


Oddly, this vertical landscape is mostly accidental – a result of feverish development that has transformed many urban skylines into forests of glass. In Toronto, particularly, the pace of construction has even surpassed such super cities as New York and Shanghai. What’s being built is architecturally unremarkable for the most part. The structural frameworks may be rooted to the early 20th-century ideals of Bauhaus, but there isn’t much concern for artistry or detail. The exceptions are mostly found in the skyscrapers built when modernist architects, by the likes of Mies van der Rohe, I.M. Pei, and Edward Durell Stone, were in charge of envisioning the future.


What these soaring forms represent collectively is the physical manifestation of power and aspiration. In the determination to densify, cities have permitted them to spring up everywhere, and now towers that look almost identical to one another are standing side by side. Interestingly, in such tight quarters they have also begun to talk to each other, their reflective skins projecting cacophonic displays of indistinguishable shapes and forms. Their glass coats have become their essential voice.


Richard Johnson began looking at his own city with a new set of eyes when he and his partner moved to a 47th floor condo near Union Station. From there, he could see the temporariness of everything around him. Living up high, he also saw views disappearing, as new replaced old, and he discovered those unexpected effects of bouncing reflections, which he observed as sharing a similar kind of energetic pace to an allegro composition – in particular, Mad Rush by Philip Glass. The 16-minute piano composition, originally scored in 1979, is famous for its alternates between delicate slow sections that are imbued with nostalgia and jolts of shifting chords that get the adrenaline rushing.


To shoot Allegro, the photographer points his telephoto lens at a building located, one, two, maybe even three blocks away, and zeroes in on its structural grid. From this vast distance, he can see within the panes the surrounding environment, the odd glimpse inside an office or boardroom, and the unique swirling patterns that last only as long as it takes to frame and shoot. The moiré effect one sees is actually a trait of glass itself. Despite the solidity of buildings, they are engineered to sway, and that ongoing, incremental movement puts tension on the glazing, causing distortions that the eye can’t detect until there is actually a reflection to capture the warping.


Johnson is fascinated in examining typologies through serialization, especially in architectural forms that have been overlooked. For ten years, his focus was trained on Canadian ice huts, chronicled from a single point of view and with near clinical precision. This documentarian approach provided him with a way to reveal the idiosyncratic character of each makeshift structure.


It’s a surprise to see his attention shift from remote terrain to curtain walls, but the processes behind both series are more related than they first appear. In a similar way, Allegro reveals an unexpected beauty in the buildings that surround us. Amidst the sameness, Johnson has isolated what makes them distinct. The structural mullions of each tower provide an armature for consistency, while the sun does its playful magic, transforming these seemly blank facades into wildly energetic fields of visual drama; and making ordinary flat glass be anything but invisible.


Catherine Osborne is a writer and editor based in Toronto. She is the former Editor-in-Chief of the architecture and design magazine Azure.

June 24, 2019 by Richard Johnson

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