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.

27 thoughts on “Can We Redecorate the Toronto Subway?

  1. Steve,

    While I certainly would back whole-heartedly your proposal for changable panels which could showcase current or archival photographic or printed art of Toronto, I don’t think that should preclude major redesign of stations.

    To begin with, the TTC’s stations, excepting the Spadina Line, Sheppard and Bloor (upstairs) are almost a universal aesthetic blight.

    To be sure, its possible to do worse, but as someone whose has the privilege of travelling, I have to say very few systems in the developed world look worse.

    Even in the U.S., the stations in Washington D.C. look an order of magnitude better than those on the Bloor line, or most of the Yonge line for that matter.

    For an example not only of the possible, but what is routinely done on many other systems, see this link.

    Now, to be sure, I am not advocating ‘prettying-up’ over the very real physical and operational needs of the system.

    But as these old stations are falling apart, or need to be upgraded in a substantial way due to issues of accessability, capacity or the fire code, it only makes sense to improve their dreadful aesthetics at the same time.

    Money is slated for the ‘Station Modernization’ of Pape and Yonge stations in the next few years, or so I was given to understand by the TTC.

    That being the case, please lets make a commitment to add an extra million or two to the budget for nicer finishes and some structural upgrades that make the stations less boxy too!

    Steve: I am not for a moment saying that we shouldn’t try to make stations as a whole more attractive. My point, however, is that the only way we seem to be able to address this problem is with megaprojects that have a rather large design/build component compared with the actual art and beautification. There is a culture in Toronto that turns everything into a construction project, welfare for the architects and engineers and the fundraisers. We need to start looking at what could be done with the same money on a less grandiose scale, but with a greater effect on the system as a whole.

    As for Yonge Station, yes, it’s a mess thanks partly lousy maintenance. Some of the tilework has problems with water penetration from behind, and some of it is just plain dirty.

    By the way, I understand that one problem the TTC has with actually washing the stations is that the Ministry of the Environment isn’t too thrilled about the stuff that winds up in the sewers. If anyone knows whether this is true, or is just another TTC excuse for inaction, please post a comment here.


  2. I just read the article. It’s wonderful!

    To me, riding the TTC is a dispiriting experience (e.g., overcrowded streetcars which force you to board strategically so that you can get off with minimal fuss, waiting at Broadview and Bathurst stations for ages for a streetcar wondering why its late).

    I particularly like the subtle approach – much better than the roaming musician who once set up shop in the New York City subway car I once rode in and subjected everyone to his music, like it or not!


  3. Steve, do you really trust the people who run this city to come up with half-decent art or historical displays? Have you been to College station? Have you been to St. Clair West, where the mezzanine has been disfigured by a vomit-inducing mural? Perhaps I’m a pawn of corporate capitalism, but I have always been impressed by the London stations plastered with huge, colourful advertising posters. People like recognizable images (the big onions at Dupont aren’t bad, I admit).

    As for doing away with advertising entirely, even in only one station, I’d rather see the TTC make an effort to sell the amount of advertising it’s capable of selling. They boast about the millions of passengers they carry, but half the advertising in the subway cars consists of public service announcements. One suspects they could sell more. Maybe if they sold a few more ads I’d only have to fork out 97 or 98 bucks for my pass. And I could enjoy huge, colourful posters.

    Steve: No I don’t trust the TTC one bit. Imagine a station that looked like their website!

    However, the makeovers of the three University Line stations were proposed by a foundation that has been set up to collect corporate donations and send them off to do “good works”. This foundation would partner with the TTC (ie with whoever funds the TTC) in the station beautification projects.

    From my previous remarks in this thread, you will see that I view some of this type of project as a form of corporate welfare, with the additional wrinkle that it even generates a tax deduction for the funders! Is there nobody in this city who can come up with a decent design proposal that is long on content and short on overhead? Or would the strictures of TTC contracts and procurement ensure that the work went to the same old boy’s club that gets this sort of thing all the time?


  4. I have often wondered how Montréal and Toronto could be so geographically close, but so far apart on other areas. Montréal has a beautiful Métro, while I can’t say the same about Toronto.

    The lack of public art used to be my criticsm of the Calgary C-Train. But now I can’t say that anymore. As the city is renovating the old stations, they are including public art. All new stations require a certain level of public art.

    First Street West station is a great example.

    The city recently finished the station by putting in Coloured Lights and a poem about Calgary (it was still being installed when those pictures were taken). You have to follow the Coloured lights to read the poem. It’s really quite neat at night.

    The city also likes to surprise us. They don’t tell us what the art will look like until the station is done.


  5. I’m not too crazy about any makeovers because they’ll ruin the uniform look and feel of the stations, and the money could be much better spent elsewhere. Excessive advertising makes the system look cheesy.

    Take the Bloor line — all they really have to do is take an acid solution to the grout to clean up the tiles, and renovate the roofs. It’s the blackened grout that makes the stations look bad. Take Ossington (or any white-tiled black grout station) — looks like the day it opened … Bathurst, looks like a dirty toilet. Just clean up the stations — Tilex doesn’t cost much.


  6. I agree with Mimmo on this one. The design of the original subway lines has been dissed by a number of sources, but I find it to be subtle and unifying, and still holding its own compared to stations on the Spadina line which have dated rather badly.

    Indeed, I’ve said it before, but if we’re going to spend money on some architectural sprucing up, I think there’d be value in restoring the original twelve Yonge subway stations to their 1954 appearance.


  7. I wholeheartedly agree with James Bow. Why imitate Montreal, London or even Moscow for comparison of fancy “beautification”? Why does Toronto have to be some other place to think that it’s any good? Why can’t our unique subway style be the simplicity of the two-tone tile schemes that were modern for their day? The Spadina line has dated badly, but I don’t hear anyone clamouring for ripping it apart and redoing it (some good restoration and cleaning would go a long way to making it look better). I once thought that it should be remodelled, but on further reflection, I realized that like the original Yonge stations, and the 1966-68 Bloor-Danforth, they were a product of their time, and should be restored and maintained in their consistency. Leave the unique Toronto look, but spend the money to clean it up and make it presentable, instead of spending a ton of money on more endless construction projects.


  8. I agree with James Bow on many things. His web offerings are a great asset to the Toronto Transit Community.

    But on decorating … Well, we all have to be wrong some of the time.

    The original Yonge line? (cringe). The only thing worse than horrible tile now at Dundas Stn is the horrible tile that came before!

    Big square slabs of vitrolite with a low white concrete ceiling have all the aesthetic charm of a really bad bathroom tile job. (thinking of the way Bloor looked)…a bad bathroom tile job in a ‘French Country’ colour scheme! (nothing in this world should ever be yellow and french blue).

    Yes some of the Spadina ideas didn’t hold over time, though as Steve pointed out, this is at least partly a maintenance issues (such as Yorkdale). I still think St. Clair West is nice, and Eglinton West, and Glencairn (dumb station location…but nice aesthetic). Spadina and Wilson are a bit bland. Yorkdale just needed to be maintained. I still can’t stand the colour at Dupont, I won’t even type what it reminds me of…you can guess. But, at least they were ‘creative’

    One of the best words to describe ‘ugly’ is dull.

    Steve: A few extra notes about Spadina line stations. Glencairn had a fairly interesting, if less than well executed, skylight, but (a) it leaked and (b) it got dirty and discouloured fairly quickly. Dupont was originally to have far more flowers, but there were budget restrictions. The orange tile is actually an architectural joke about bathroom decor. Eglinton West has the streetcar murals, and someday we may even have streetcars there. Otherwise, it was a strange choice for that location. (The closest streetcars came to that station was Eglinton and Oakwood, and that service disappeared decades before the station opened.)

    As for the original stations, it should be possible to design displays that complement the style and colour scheme — high contrast black and white for Ossington is obvious, but a similar approach could be used with the primary colour of other stations so that the new graphics would fit in.

    For a really good (bad!) example of a mismatch, check out the Pizza Pizza ads at St. George where we have their corporate orange wrapped around the green pillars.


  9. As seen with the Stockholm subway, less is really more. Instead of having cheap ceramic tiles, why not expose the rock, and complement using steel, concrete and glass? It’s much more cost efficient and better looking! Since it’ll give a blank slate, anything can be put on the walls afterwards without looking dated.

    Steve: Alas, the Toronto subway is not built in rock, but in clay and gravel, not to mention underground streams. Exposing the walls is not an option here.


  10. The TTC could always save money by using art students to decorate the stations. In fact, you won’t even have to pay them (other than, perhaps, the cost of supplies) if the work is for course credit.


  11. This is Toronto. The contracts would go to old boys/girls.
    If modest funding were to be provided to a volunteer group to produce rotating and non-rotating historical displays, I’m sure interesting displays along the lines you mention could be produced for modest sums. The Toronto archives are chock full of materials which could be used. I’d even volunteer to help.

    Ain’t gonna happen, though. Important Hogtown personages wouldn’t be able to justify their appointments to foundations.


  12. Ah, discussions of dreckoration. Some maintenance is a very good idea, but once one starts, where to stop – at spraypainting the tunnels white to seal in the asbestos and grime? And on the Spadina line, the Dupont tiles are showing a lot of cracks btw, more than the City Hall main floor it seems.


  13. There is actually a modest archival photo display of the financial district at the King Station-Commerce Court exit. It contains numerous archive photos of the downtown core, including the commonly-seen photos of the aftermath of the 1904 fire. At least someone else was thinking of using this space to present some Toronto history.

    Obviously there will be differences of opinion on the original tiles in the subway, but remember that many old buildings were torn down in downtown Toronto because they were considered horrible to the aesthetics of the 1950s-60s. Now, some buildings of the 1950s-60s are considered horrible architecture. Tearing those buildings down now may please our aesthetic senses today, but it removes a piece of the city’s history. The tile look may be “horrible” to some, but at least we can call it our own.


  14. I don’t see why everyone thinks the old vitrolite was ugly. It was modern for its day, and so were the the BD stations. You can still get vitrolite — only it’s called vitrolux, or something like that.

    The original Yonge line had a continuity that was lost when they renovated. We shouldn’t mess with what the original designers had in mind – just restore it – don’t change it. If the BD planners had put in psychedelic twiggy murals or something like that on the extensions, wouldn’t you say that was dated by now?

    The Sheppard stations actually look bad, with those bare concrete walls at platform level, and some of that “art” is pukeworthy.


  15. I must be the only one who actually likes the original designs for the Yonge-University, and Bloor-Danforth subways.

    It would be nice if the TTC simply cleaned up the stations, replaced broken tiles, and simply made the stations look clean, and presentable.


  16. Going with 5,6 and 7 on this one. Yes, the older stations look like 1950s industrial washrooms but to mess with them would be a mistake. Let’s keep the focus on new additions to the system. And as far as public art goes here in the Big Smoke – if it ain’t about hockey, business or moose it’s not on.

    Now, ultra-designed LRT stations, that is something I can get into. *visions of sail-like, fabric-ey station structures “floating” on the King and Queen rail overpasses dancing through my head* *sigh*


  17. One way to get more bang for the buck: standardize the panel sizes to allow some of the collection to rotate between stations. E.g. I have no idea what art is at Ellesmere because I never travel there; if the TTC could easily bring Ellesmere’s art to my home station for a while I’d get almost as much out of it as I would a brand new commission.

    That said, I also like the idea of having art that’s matched to individual stations (both in terms of local themes and colours compatible with that locale’s tiles). These pieces might not rotate, or rotate less widely.

    There’s also the approach of London’s Platform for Art ( ), which basically borrows a station for use as a temporary exhibit art gallery.

    For full-blown station redesigns, the crucial piece is to establish the right goals. The University line proposals aimed to draw attention to the cultural institutions above those stations, and presto, the results look like advertising campaigns. The TTC could learn a lot from studying the Toronto Public Library’s branch renovation program — they must be doing something right because renovated branches have seen substantial and sustained increases in use.


  18. I know people will find ways to disagree, but I still think that removable panels that mention the neighbourhoods above TTC stations would be a nice feature.

    Yes, Chinatown wont be there forever, but so what…it’s there now and it would be interesting to recognize that.

    I like the presence of murals that tell me what the community is like outside. Streetcars at Eglinton West are a vision of the future. Queen’s murals could be improved but they are nice enough. The same goes for College and the hockey murals.

    Think of all the features of the neighbourhoods of Toronto, like the park at High Park, or the Don Valley between Castle Frank and Broadview…they need to be featured somehow.

    Overall my favorite station (aesthetically) would have to be Old Mill. I love the combination of subway and hillside and nature.

    Cheers, m


  19. When the subway stations don’t have missing rooftiles and leaks (especially Yonge SB platform at Y+B), I’ll worry about how they look.

    However, I do like the concept of exhibitions, reinforcing the subway as part of civic space.


  20. The other week I was walking along the Danforth and decided to catch the subway at Chester. This is a station that I don’t think I have ever used before.

    Well, it’s not a very busy station, so there’s less wear and tear on the materials, and apparently less inclination to put up ugly racks of free magazines and papers in the entrance.

    The upper parts of the station actually looked attractive! Clean and uncluttered. (I did stop to read the plaque about Jimmy Trajceski–huh, I thought the murder was in Chester Station, but it happened at Victoria Park.)

    Alas, the platform areas were not as nice, because of all the grime from trains passing through.

    Even Lower Bay looked pretty good to me–it was cleaned for the diversion somewhat, and it does not have a lot of the subsequent clutter that invaded the stations.

    So put me, first of all, in the “cleaning will do a world of good” crowd.

    Secondly, I’d like to see good student art in the stations. This would require a lot of sensitivity to the basic clean modern design of the stations. I’m a bit skeptical that all, or even most, of the student art will be sensitive enough; but I can always hope.

    It can’t be worse that the various station saturation rebranding efforts I’ve stumbled across–sometimes literally: whoever thinks it’s a good idea to put Jurassic Park logos on stair risers is an idiot because this really increases the chance of tripping on the steps due to visual distraction.


  21. I’m all for redesigning the majority of subway stations in Toronto… most of the color combinations we have are embarrassingly ugly and demoralizing when your on a long commute.

    Newer, fresher and more vibrant color schemes could drastically alter the feel of the TTC and can positively affect people’s moods.

    I could go into more detail but enough about the subway… when was the last time you waited for a bus at Scarborough Town Centre, Warden or VP? Now that is demoralizing (esp. when you factor in that your waiting anywhere between 15 and 20 minutes for the bus…).

    Nothing but grey, cold concrete and metal, exposed wires/pipes and hardly a place to sit. Bland is an understatment.

    Take a look at the subway stations on this website and then take a look at Chester station… just to give you an idea of what is possible.

    Steve: You don’t like Scarborough Town Centre Station? The beauty of the soaring elevated casting the bus loop in eternal shadow? Fortunately, I get to use the RT level where there is at least a view (and a bitterly cold wind) to enjoy while waiting for a train to appear.


  22. Steve, we should do what they did in budapest Hungary. What they did was shut down the entire subway line and reconstruct it, making all the stations look one uniform way. This look was red and yellow trim with white walls as well as some statues and things in various stations for asthetic purposes. The stations looked really good when I was there and saw them, I think thats what we need. One mass reconstructing of all our stations considering most of them are falling apart due to water penetration. Oh and they used to did in stages, so as not to disrupt subway service to much and when they did they supplemented it with various shuttle routes which in my opinion was efficient. For more info check out this site and Click on the word english on the top of the screen and when the screen is english click on Metro Line 2 Reconstruction to see how they orchestrated it.

    Steve: I think this sort of thing is a bit of overkill for Toronto. I’m not trying for uniformity or total reconstruction, rather avoiding it in favour of smaller projects that would improve the system overall.


  23. Regarding Craig’s comment “Take a look at the subway stations on this website”…

    Wow. Dupont station looked spectacular when it was new! That really does reinforce the point that if the TTC would just give all stations a really good scrub-down, and continue doing so regularly, many of our stations would look pretty good. It’s the decades of grime and filth that make our stations look so decrepit, not the design.


  24. Re: Leo’s comment, “Dupont station looked spectacular when it was new”, the page is misleading. The station is “from 1978”, but that photo, according to the Flickr time-stamp, was taken October 16, 2005.

    Maybe the grime doesn’t show in a small photo like this, but I think it’s a great example of how some non-minimalist decor does make a difference. When there’s nothing to look at but ads and water stains, those stains make a much bigger impression.


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

    I find Poetry on the Way wonderful. Agreed it is a tiny initiative and on top of that an unassuming one. Almost feels anarchic in impulse… poetry can be considered high-brow culture but sticking it onto posters on transit sure opens it up… and not near as regulated as display cases or exhibition areas. To me it is amazing how effective a small program can be in terms of bringing pleasure to daily drudgery.

    Now if only I could figure out where/if they have the content online…


  26. Changeable panels with art are routinely used in other cities. Often, they cover the entire length of the wall of a subway station. There are many kinds of art that could be showcased on these panels, from the work of local artists to historical photographs and advertising for cultural events. Couldn’t they be used in Toronto? They would be a cheap way to liven up otherwise boring subway stations.


  27. could we not just bring back some of the original splendour of the stations and use vitrolux (vitrolites cousin) to redesign the stations? I mean I have seen it used and if done right it looks really really nice.


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