Can We Redecorate the Toronto Subway?

The post about artists decorating a New York Subway car reminded me of a conversation earlier this week at a gathering of the Jane Jacobs Prize winners.  A few of us were talking about ideas for getting stories of the transit system’s history out where people could easily find them, and I brought up the issue of subway station decor.

Decor is not quite the word I would use when describing the TTC, but the mathemeticians among you will understand the concept of the null set.  Even the total absence of decor is a form of decor itself, minimalism taken to the extreme.

This brings me back to a topic discussed here in the early days of the site, subway station beautification.

Why can we only have subway station makeovers when someone wants to drop millions of dollars, and a lot of capital-D Design on a few stations? The current proposals for Museum, St. Patrick and Osgoode involve complete makeovers with a high ratio of design and construction effort to finished product. Will they stay relevant in five, ten, twenty years, or will they fizzle out from staleness of content and indifferent maintenance like Arc en ciel at Yorkdale Station?

Why must decor take on the character of a station domination advertising campaign?  Indeed, could future proposals run aground for fear that they would compromise the TTC’s ability to sell entire stations to advertisers?  Imagine Union Station bereft of advertising and full of imagery of transportation!

The Poetry on the Way program is a tiny, occasionally heartwarming touch in the sterile subway environment, but it’s far too little.

Toronto is in the midst of considering a complete makeover of its street furniture, a scheme designed to sell every square inch of the city for advertising revenue.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there were places in the subway, prominent places, not just out of the way corners in stations like Bessarion or Ellesmere, where we could see images of the nearby city past and present?  With a bit of thought, the design of such presentations could even fit in with the character of each station.

An even more aggressive scheme would involve actually changing these displays from time to time.  Yes, panels cost money to fabricate and install, but think of it as part of the cost of making the system attractive.  “Hey, look, that picture wasn’t there yesterday!”

I throw this out as a challenge to all those would-be benefactors of arts and urban life.  Instead of building up funds for mega-construction projects, think small, but on a big scale.  Don’t try to put the same cookie-cutter generic Toronto photo in every station, don’t just slap a cheap piece of cardboard or plastic in an advertising frame as filler during the off-season, put in something that will last.  And do it everywhere so that art, decor, a bit of warm feeling about our city, aren’t just the preserve of a few stations dedicated to grand construction on the University line.