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Condo Scene: The 88th-floor philosophy – an anthropological view of the condo


Ottawa condo

The 45-storey Icon by Claridge, which is now under construction, will be Ottawa’s tallest condo tower when finished.

I recently had the chance to sit down with one of the world’s foremost anthropologists to talk about condos.

Dr. Lionel Tiger grew up in Montreal as a friend of Leonard Cohen. Ever heard the term male bonding? Tiger coined it.

He has enjoyed a successful academic career at Rutgers University, and has contributed regularly to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and has written many books.

Lucky for me, Tiger also has something to say about condos.

Based in New York City, he’s very familiar with condos and their relations, co-ops, and has some interesting theories on why they are reaching higher and higher. The phenomenon of building taller is often attributed to maximizing views and builders tend to exhort an “88th-floor philosophy” when it comes to heights.

Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that we already perceive the penthouse as a status symbol: Think of the classic romantic comedy film Pretty Woman, where Richard Gere’s character springs for the Beverly Wilshire hotel penthouse despite his fear of heights. Why? “It’s the best,” he says. “I looked all around for penthouses on the ground floor, but I couldn’t find any.”

The penchant for penthouses is so strong that some builders are releasing more than one level of them. In Ottawa, for instance, we are seeing buildings offering four floors of penthouses. Though this may make them less exclusive, it certainly emphasizes the desire for status.

“I suspect the implicit status factor is huge,” Tiger says of the height trend. “Humans are primates that like being high on the tree to watch for enemies and feel like a boss. (New York City) highrise buildings are therefore both primitive and practical at once. They are also a vastly expensive investment toy, now being bought by corporations instead of mines as investments.”

Tiger also explains another element to the inherent status mongering of condo buying: the co-op.

“The difference between a condo and co-op in NYC is simply that the condo owner owns his space and pays some common charges to the management over whom he has no formal control. The co-op owner doesn’t own the actual space but rather shares in the overall structure. The number of shares reflects for example the size and position of the space.

“The critical difference is that the co-op owner has a say in who gets to buy other space in the building. Co-op boards demand often extensive financial and personal/character information. One CFO of a vast company told me his co-op application and interview were the most personal and demanding he had since going to an exclusive school.”

Professor Lionel Tiger

Professor Lionel Tiger likens our trend toward height to the notion that ‘humans are primates that like being high on the tree to watch for enemies and feel like a boss.’

One reason people may like condos is that the “height and space of the unit and the advertised prestige of the building instantly establishes status,” he says. Moguls from Russia can rival a Rockefeller by buying a large chunk of a building in which a Rockefeller lives or once did. But to get into a prestigious co-op, “they have to demonstrate kosher character.” This is very different from simply putting down money and buying a condo.

Though the co-op is not a concept we have in Ottawa yet, condos are becoming increasingly popular. Tiger explains the draw to condos in New York is largely due to the fact that New Yorkers don’t need cars and “a house also acts as a parking lot for which younger, smaller families do not see a need. Condos, of course, can have parking, but that’s not essential for a vibrant life in a costly environment.”

When it comes to the co-op structure, he says, it “reduces the sense of urban anonymity because residence usually implies some personal and financial stature.” They belong to a like-minded group of residents.

Perhaps urban anonymity is less of a concern in a smaller city like Ottawa, but it seems to me that this negation of anonymity can be achieved in our community through involvement in a condo board.

As our condo scene continues to expand, it will be interesting to see whether or not the co-op concept comes here. In the meantime, we will continue to watch our buildings rise.

Marilyn Wilson has been selling real estate for more than 25 years and owns Marilyn Wilson Dream Properties Inc. Christie’s International Real Estate. Reach her through

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