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The once and future Museum station

A bold new plan for ROM’s subway stop has some Torontonians wistfully clinging to the TTC’s once-despised ‘washroom stations’


August 4, 2007

This week, Museum subway station was getting a gut renovation. A few passengers waited around one morning under a bare concrete ceiling and columns on the platform had been chipped away to reveal steel I-beams underneath.

But the Toronto Transit Commission’s contractors aren’t doing a typical repair job on the station’s 1960s yellow-and-blue tile. The platform is being redesigned by Diamond + Schmitt Architects into a hall inspired by classical architecture, with the columns transformed into artifacts from the nearby Royal Ontario Museum. “Since we’ve proceeded with this so-called cultural renaissance, it would be great to have a résumé of the institutions as you ride through them,” architect Jack Diamond says. “For Museum station, the idea was that there are these very boring structures - so we would take castings of some of the better artifacts and wrap them around the columns.

“Really, these are caryatids,” he adds, referring to a form of classical statuary that supports a structure. “The Greeks got there first.”

For a subway station in middle age, this is heady stuff. And as the TTC launches a broad renovation program over the next year, this sort of creative redesign could set the tone for how the stations will look a generation from now: replacing the modernist history of the TTC with new designs that combine art and neighbourhood character.

The idea came from an unexpected corner. In 2005, a philanthropic group called the Toronto Community Foundation held public consultations on improving transit and public space. “People thought of these TTC stations as public space, and also that these stations didn’t accurately reflect the vitality of the city in their state of decay,” recalls the foundation’s chief executive officer, Rahul Bhardwaj, whose group connects private donors with various charitable and public-sector causes. “This was a way of addressing that.”

So the foundation invited Diamond + Schmitt to bring cultural components to three stations on the University line: Museum, St. Patrick and Osgoode, drawing on the ROM, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. “On the one hand, it’ll support tourism,” Mr. Bhardwaj argues. The Museum project, now under construction with the TCF covering three-quarters of the capital cost, will “improve the experience” of visiting the museum.

And TTC chair Adam Giambrone is paying close attention to how it comes together. The commission recently announced its $275-million Station Modernization Program, which will remake nine stations on the Bloor-Danforth line over five years. Much of the money will go to structural changes and accessibility, but perhaps $25-million will go to “aesthetic changes” in the stations. “Some stations are going to conform to certain themes,” he says. Pape station, when modernized, “is going to have artwork inspired by the Greek heritage of the area.” Old Mill station, with its view of the Humber, will get new public art that speaks to Toronto’s early French heritage.

But according to designer and transit advocate Matthew Blackett, the TTC’s efforts could destroy an important piece of the city’s design history. When it comes to Museum station, built in 1963, “we can afford to lose one station. But if you did a whole chunk of the Bloor-Danforth line, that would be a loss,”says Mr. Blackett, who knows first-hand the power of the TTC’s graphic identity: Spacing magazine, where he is publisher, has sold 75,000 subway-

station buttons.

Heritage architect Michael McClelland echoes that concern. He points to the design of the original Yonge Street subway line; when it opened in 1954 between Union Station and Eglinton, its stations had consistent architecture, including colour-co-ordinated Vitrolite glass tile and signage in the TTC’s custom typeface. Those features had “iconic value,” Mr. McClelland says. But in the late 1970s and 1980s, the TTC replaced them, in several cases using alarming, now-dated shades of ceramic tile. Now, the TTC “have lost their branding,” he adds. “In other cities, it’s much easier to look at the subway and know which city you’re in, and the TTC has lost that coherence.”

Mr. Diamond - whose firm created concepts for Osgoode and St. Andrew but has not yet got the job to execute them - dismisses that idea. “There are two ways to go,” he argues. “If you have a remarkable design, like the art nouveau Paris Metro or the London Underground - and you happen to be building a subway in that period - then by all means keep it all the same. Or, you can give a different impression at each station of the subway, whether Bay Street or Bayview, that gives an impression of what’s happening above ground.” (Mr. Diamond describes the Bloor-Danforth line as “English Canada’s poor attempt to imitate the London Underground.”)

And Mr. Giambrone says - especially after decades of different station designs and “one-off” repairs - that it would be impossible to make the whole system look the same. “We have a 35-year capital program,” he says. “There are a lot of stations still to go.”

He argues that having subway platforms reflect their neighbourhood, at the current moment, makes the most sense. “Stations become commentary on the era in which they’re written,” he says.

The commission will follow the design ideas of the Sheppard subway line when it comes to signage and incorporating public art “across the entire station.”

Mr. Giambrone says it’s important to insulate design from political interference. He cites a TTC legend about how when the Yonge line was constructed, the commission’s initial plans were dismissed as too ornate to be politically viable. “And that’s how we got these washroom stations,” he says, referring to the spare designs of the Yonge line.

But Mr. McClelland has heard subway stations described as a “bathroom style” before, and he says it reflects a lack of attention to the stations’ original design. “People tend to look at things 40 or 50 years old as not having any historical value, and I think that’s unfortunate,” he says. “I think the TTC, and the city more generally, should look at things of that period very carefully. Just lately there’s been a groundswell of really interesting things - the drive to preserve the Sam the Record Man signs, for instance, and that’s a much more radical form of preservation.”

In fact, Mr. Giambrone says the Bloor-Danforth line, opened in 1963 and 1966 with a largely consistent design scheme, may get looked at in a decade when the commission rethinks its capital plans. “In some cases, it might be appropriate to do a heritage renovation for stations that reflect the moment in history of the original Bloor-Danforth line.”

On that score, Mr. McClelland adds a word of caution: “The TTC should realize that the stations are a major part of public space. And change to a major part of public space is very different from interior decoration.”

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