This is going to be another of those postings filled to the brim with original reporting – something that old media alleges blogs scarcely have, but also something you would expect from a former daily-newspaper and magazine journalist and nonfiction-book author. It’s way more than the Spacers would bother with, even as the head Spacer earns actual money, however modest, from the TTC. It also represents much too much of a time commitment for what I, or anyone, will get out of it.

Latterly, I complained that the TTC ignored a request from its own commissioners to produce a report on its lousy signage. It didn’t even include that uncompleted report on a list of uncompleted reports. But, with lightning speed, it turned around a response to TTC chair Adam Giambrone to beautify (“modernize”) the entrances of eight downtown stations, “Museum, Queen’s Park, St. Patrick, Osgoode, St. Andrew, King, Dundas[,] and College.” Signage was to be included in this apparently pointless charette, to which I objected.

Why? Because what do you think of when you think of “beautiful” subway entrances with beautiful signage? Paris Metro, right?

Staircase descending from sidewalk is labelled METROPOLITAIN in a typeface with varying capital heights. The entrance is surrounded by green wrought-iron shields

Because it’s really classy, right? And who could object to that? But that isn’t what we want. The TTC has a problem with function; let’s work on that first.

I appeared at last Wednesday’s TTC meeting to make a deputation. Just like last time, my 2:00 deputation took place at 5:15 sharp. In a cheery and zippy tone, I expressed a kind of motherhood support for the bricks-and-mortar part of the beautification project (who wouldn’t be in favour of that?) but told them they were putting the cart before the horse when it came to signage. (Partway through, TTC vice-chair Joe Mihevc shushed other commissioners, which I took as a good sign.) I told them they had a pressing problem just with function, and proved it with printed photographs of the Bay Lower/Museum subway diversion from last month. I asked them to sever the signage portion from the architectural portion. Elapsed deputation time: 3:47. And it had all the effect of a neutrino whizzing through the earth, but it kind of doesn’t matter.

I later chatted with TTC’s manager of engineering, Susan Reed-Tanaka, who had previously sent me a paper on their testing of platform edge markers – such testing actually including women in high heels, a nice real-world touch. (We found out this week that those tiles have been discontinued.) She explained that the initial report was ill-written (quelle surprise) and that any maquettes must use the TTC’s existing crappy signage. (That was my term, but she repeated it.)

Before that conversation, seemingly every commissioner had something to say. Glenn De Baeremaeker seems less and less impressive with every passing second he speaks. He whined endlessly that ugly Scarborough stations weren’t included in the project. (Scarborough Centre is “an example of urban blight.” Ellesmere is situated next to an old creek that is now a concrete canyon, with detritus from a nearby cardboard plant blowing around. “Downtown has the Cadillac version of everything.”) He’s right – suburban stations weren’t included. As the report, which De Baeremaeker obviously had only skimmed, clearly states, the problem with downtown stations is naked concrete-and-tile staircases descending from naked sidewalks. The ugliness of Scarborough stations is embodied in a different typology. It’s rotten apples vs. rotten oranges.

Reed-Tanaka and John Sepulis, general manager of engineering and construction, seemed quite pained and stressed during the discussion, which also included these gems:

  • This absolutely will not be an open call for architects or designers to mock up a beautiful station entrance for a measly $5K. Individual architects will be specifically chosen and assigned, and, where stations are in the vicinity of buildings designed by big names, only those big names will be offered the job. It was explicitly stated that Diamond Schmitt would get the Osgoode contract, Frank Gehry the Dundas one; a three-named architecture firm I couldn’t write down in time would get College. (De Baeremaeker suggested, without naming him, that Raymond Moriyama redesign the Scarborough Centre entrance, since he designed Scarborough City Hall. Or the architect of the Scarborough Y.)
  • But what would be put up to tender, we were told, would be “the actual filling-out of the design” and “detailing.” In other words, you design it for peanuts and somebody else gets to charge market rates to build it (after they inevitably alter or corrupt your design). “If you think Frank Gehry is going to give you a concept and let somebody else detail it,” Commissioner Peter Milczyn said, “they’re not.”
  • Giambrone pulled himself up to his full 197-centimetre height and put everyone in their place.
    • This isn’t a wide-ranging program of redesign of TTC entrances, he instructed, even if that might be a good idea. It’s more about community engagement, not a real redesign process. (I would add that “community engagement” here means “We choose the architect and you get to look at their drawings at a three-hour open house.”)
    • “This Commission has consistently been working to make stations more appealing.” They’ve approved a plan to post historical photographs in some stations; they’re improving cleaning; they’re painting; they’re “replacing broken things to make stations look better.”
    • The city’s Orphaned Spaces program renovated entire parks for 1,500 bucks a pop, and many murals were added to walls at little cost, so the low dollar figure doesn’t mean the results won’t be good.
    • He mentioned that Museum and St. Patrick were being handled by that (disastrously misguided and unwanted) Renaissance program (the main beneficiary of which is – wait for it – Diamond Schmitt), but nobody ever explained why those stations were also listed in the current plan.

Ultimately the proposal was expanded to three stations in each of the four districts, meaning there won’t be a single district that has everything fixed; every district will be a mishmash. At least the TTC is being consistent in its inconsistency. Designing a subway system so that everything looks consistent would be much too twee, intellectual, and girly for jumped-up motormen and the other middle-aged men who run the place. (I’m sure Susan Reed-Tanaka understands the need for it. She’s not afraid to test platform tiles on stiletto heels.)

So: All of that is rather pointless, and a waste of $60,000 that, for example, I could use to produce an inventory of existing signage typologies. Yes, I do see this as a zero-sum argument: Signage is, for some reason, under the ægis of the marketing department, whose head cannot be bothered to respond to me. (She’s the same person who had to hurriedly withdraw an expensive ad campaign blaming passengers for subway delays. The TTC always finds a way to penalize its fans.)

What else is wrong with this idea?

  • Sole-sourcing is a problem. If this is about community engagement, why does it seem like a dozen backroom deals whose results will be sprung on the community as a fait accompli?
  • Jack Diamond and his partners Cemusa refused to bid on the street-furniture contract (ominously used as a model by the TTC in this process) because there wasn’t enough money in it. But street furniture is a nine-digit project. Why the hell would Diamond even return a phone call over a set of drawings for $5K? They’d bill that much just to return the phone call.
  • The TTC has announced this proposal to sole-source architectural designs before they actually lined up the architects. And they have no Plan B: When Diamond, Gehry, et al. tell them no or don’t even bother to respond (a tactic the TTC knows well), there is no other single architect lined up to whom the contract could be given.
  • No qualified architects would design something for a client if they couldn’t build it. (Listen: Would you?) Not only would the contractors tinker with the design, the TTC surely will. And we know now they’ll slap their fake-Helvetica “signage” on the whole thing.
  • Do they want drawings or a model or both for this $5,000?

Now, instead of just assuming that these starchitects couldn’t be arsed to engage in this project, I asked them. I E-mailed and/or called Diamond Schmitt and Gehry Associates. Thus far, no response. They don’t even have enough interest in the idea to respond to a question about it. You think $5K is really gonna grease those wheels?

I have also quite changed my mind about supporting the bricks-and-mortar portion of the plan, as it is disingenuous and a waste of money. I am sure that, like subway delays, anything that happens as a result of this posting will be my own fault.


(2007.03.29)    For extra thoroughness, this week I fax-o-grammed both the architects’ firms, again requesting a response. None came.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.03.24 17:11. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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