Most of the world’s greatest cities have acknowledged the importance of creating beautiful subway stations. These public investments not only attract tourist but they create inviting, attractive public places for everyone to enjoy on their daily commute.
After the Yonge and Bloor subways were constructed the public reacted to the gaunt design and utilitarian nature of the stations. Now, the engineers that run our transit system are eminently practical. They are totally focused on making sure the trains run on time. They don’t want to waste money on “art” when it can be spent on brake shoes and that’s understandable because the transit systems in Toronto is one of the most underfunded in the world.
The TTC grudgingly adopted a public art policy but it was ½% for art and it applied only to the areas of the subway to which the public has access. The frugal executives at the TTC figured they had to spend about that much on wall tiles anyway so they might as well make them pretty. That’s why the kind of art done in our subway stations is now almost always tile designs and are sometimes not very inspiring.
One of the most beautiful installations on the Spadina line is the “Arc en Ciel” at the Yorkdale Station. It was created by Michael Hayden a Canadian Artist who has since achieved worldwide recognition for his light sculptures. “Arc en Ciel” consisted of 158 multi-coloured neon lamps installed in the arched roof of the station that created a dazzling moving rainbow effect whenever a train entered or left the station. Over time water leaks damaged the transformers and rather than incurring the expense of replacing them (which Michael said would have been less than $1,000) the TTC pulled everything out. In 1978, after the work was completed Michael moved to California where he lives and works today. He is best known for his installation at O’Hare airport in Chicago and is now working on a 350 foot pedestrian tunnel in Cleveland.
I am passionate about public art. In real life, before I was elected, I was a junior high school art teacher. When I became chair of the TTC I was determined to see the return of the rainbow at Yorkdale station. That opportunity came in 2010 when Yorkdale Shopping Centre approached me as the local councillor for help in securing building permits to expand the mall. I signed a memorandum of co-operation with them for about $2M in community benefits, $325,000 of which was set aside for the restoration of the “Arc en Ceil”.
The project was approved by the Commission that year and it has taken more than 6 years to work its way through TTC bureaucracy. Because of delays, and what with the change in the American dollar and rising prices, the cost of the project has ballooned to $800,000. I once asked a developer what is was like working with the TTC. His answer: “I’d rather have pins pushed into my eyeballs.”
With help of Josh Colle, the current chair of the TTC we managed to finally raise the funds and the momentum to push forward. Toronto Council put their final stamp of approval on the project at their July 2016 meeting.
Lighting technology has gone through a revolutionary change since the ‘Arc en Ciel’ was first installed in 1978. Neon has been replaced by LED lights with computer controlled pixels one inch apart. Michael is furiously working on the computer program that will pilot the new installation at his home in Santa Rosa, California. The finished work is scheduled to be installed by a Toronto firm called the Brothers Markle Inc. in October 2016.
The goal is to flip the switch that turns the rainbow on in mid-November: watch for it! In Michael’s words, “It will be magnificent.”