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Designers subvert the subway blahs

TTC strives to make Sheppard line appealing

By Joseph Hall - Toronto Star Transportation Reporter
Tuesday, August 4, 1998


BUCOLIC VISTAS: Scenes of Yonge St. as it progresses into Northern Ontario highlight artist's rendering of Yonge-Sheppard station.


TWO VIEWS: A tree in Yonge St. panorama appears as blocks of coloured tile close up.

Spartan. Bare bones. Institutional. 

The way they're describing Toronto's new $919 million Sheppard subway these days, you would think the city was in for an architectural Alcatraz when the line opens about four years hence. 

But artists' renditions of the interiors and exteriors of Sheppard's five stations, presented to The Star recently, tell a much more colourful story. 

Indeed, compared to the plain-tiled decor on much of the TTC's Bloor-Danforth subway line - which has been described as looking like the world's longest public washroom - Sheppard's stops actually may look pretty good, says Andy Bertolo, the line's chief project manager.

"There are problems, I won't say there are not, but they're not as bad as they're made out to be. And we've tried to be imaginative and tried to get the biggest bang for the bucks we do have," Bertolo said.

"And I really think people will be generally pleased with the results."

Forced by provincial cuts to forgo the geometrical and artistic extravagances that earmarked the TTC's 1970s Spadina line, Sheppard will most certainly be a square-cut, right-angled continuum of basic building materials.

But its concrete, tile, terrazzo and lighting components will be configured in an imaginative way to give the line personality and appeal, said TTC transportation co-ordinator David Hopper.

"While keeping the stations at a fairly basic level, we have tried, where possible, to make it an esthetically pleasing environment," Hopper said.

"And one of the ways we're going to do that is to use the ceramic tiles on the walls to create integrated artworks much like the (Spadina line's) Dupont station."

TTC staff paired each station's architect with a visual artist to design patterns that would be incorporated into the tiles that cover much of the concourse and platform walls.

And what they've come up with is eclectic, to say the least.

There will be disappearing dogs, geological fossils and bucolic vistas of Yonge St.'s northerly reaches emblazoned into the line's functional fabric.

"In the Don Mills station, for example, we've used standard four-by-eight (inch) ceramic tiles for the walls," Hopper says.

"But instead of using all one colour, we've used a pattern mimicking the layers in the soil of the surrounding ground . . . and even some of the fossils you'd find in the earth around the station."

In the Sheppard-Yonge station, the large concourse level is covered with computer-generated scenes of Yonge St. (Highway 11), where it runs through areas north of Toronto.

"The artist has taken a series of panoramic photographs of Yonge St. from Newmarket to North Bay and with a computer has blended them together in one 1,800-foot-long photograph," Hopper says.

"It was then pixilated into one-inch square tiles so when you stand up close it will look like a wash of different colours, but when you're looking across the station's large space it will look like a scene of Ontario along Yonge St."

At the Bessarion station, which is being threatened with cancellation because of cost overruns, the walls may feature a half-metre-high frieze, depicting people's feet, heads or hands as they rush through or linger in the station.

At the Leslie stop, the station's name and the word Sheppard will be rendered in the handwriting of more than 5,000 local people and set in a repetitive pattern within the tile walls.

And at the Bayview stop, an artist has worked elongated ladders, insects, umbrellas and a dog into the walls and floors, each of which appear and disappear in perspective as riders walk toward or away from them.

"All of this adds just a marginal incremental cost because the walls have to be tiled anyway for cleaning purposes and because, underground, the concrete walls leak," Hopper said.

"But one colour of tile doesn't cost any more than another, so if we can mix the colours into a design we said, `Why not?' It doesn't cost any more really than having it all one shade."

There is also a cost advantage to using terrazzo on the floors, Bertolo said.

Although the material, a colourful combination of concrete and ground stone, costs more than straight cement or ceramic tile, it also lasts much longer.

"This can last 20 years or more and can be cleaned easily, while concrete gets dirty and may have to be replaced every few years," Bertolo says.

It is up at the ceiling level where cuts will be noticeable, Hopper said.

While some of the ceilings - especially in station concourses - will be lined with metal material, most upper areas will be bereft of cosmetic covering.

"There are areas of the stations where we have had to take out the metal ceilings . . . and this could be the downfall of some of the cost-cutting that's happened," Hopper said.

"And where we've taken them out, you're going to see the fire systems, you're going to see the water pipes, you're going to see the electrical conduits; it's going to be a bare concrete ceiling which gets dirtier much faster."

Sound-absorbing acoustic tiles will cover some of the bare spots.

The station entrances, Bertolo said, will often have the look of "a prefabricated building."

But there will be extensive use of glass, which can also be a safety feature.

"People will be able to see inside as they come in and if they don't like what they see, they can walk away," he said. "People will also be able to stay in the stations and watch for their ride if they are being picked up."