Subway station architects intend to cheer you up

Nov 17, 2008 04:30 AM- Article on the Toronto Star

Welcome to the better Better Way.In anticipation of the extension of the Spadina subway north from Downsview, the TTC has hired a gaggle of globe-trotting architects to design six new stations.Among them are two leading U.K. practitioners, Will Alsop and Norman Foster, both of whom have worked in Toronto. Alsop, of course, is the author of the celebrated "flying tabletop" at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Foster's only local project is the University of Toronto's Leslie Dan Pharmacy Building."If you can cheer someone up for a few minutes," Alsop declares, "it's worth it."Though in its early stages, Alsop says his design will focus on bringing natural light and fresh air down into the bowels of the stations, which cost $8 to $15 million each. Recognizing that transit travel can be brutal, especially during the cold and dark of winter, Alsop wants to improve the experience."Is it possible to be a bold and beautiful subway station?" asks Alsop. "I think it is."Certainly, if any architect could pull it off, he'd be the one. Known as a visionary, if a slightly hallucinatory one, Alsop has the rare ability to build icons that don't forget their purposes. OCAD is a perfect example; what might appear to be just an outlandish building-on-stilts solved a number of practical issues of school closure, adequate classroom space and landscaping."It'll have a lot to do with light," he explains. "These stations occupy a large volume and we don't want to fill them up with unnecessary stuff. If we get it right, you'll be quite happy to sit on a bench and wait for a train."Alsop has worked on the London Underground, as has Foster, whose firm designed the enormous stop at Canary Wharf. He also did the subway stations in Bilbao, Spain, and their shell-like entrances, known locally as "Fosterinos.""Slowly, a transformation is happening at the TTC," says commission chair Adam Giambrone. "The RFP (request for proposals) was sent out in a way that would attract architects from around the globe. The decision was informed by a renewed sense of the importance of the civic realm. We have to live with these buildings in our neighbourhoods. Design matters. You need to provide more than a concrete box."That may not sound like the TTC talking, but don't forget that Yorkdale Station was designed by Canada's most acclaimed architect, Arthur Erickson, and that a number of the country's best-known artists have contributed works.In other words, there are precedents. Even the ill-fated Sheppard Line incorporates artworks into the very structure of the stations.Best of all, Giambrone insists, the federal and provincial cheques for the extension, $698 million and $1.1 billion respectively, have cleared. Add to that $400 million from York Region and $600 million from Toronto."We actually have the money in the bank," Giambrone says. "The project has already begun."But, he points out, "I've learned that you have to watch these things to make sure you don't get cut back at the last minute."It remains questionable why these stations – all free-standing structures – won't be incorporated into larger buildings, office or residential towers, as are many here and abroad. Much has been said about urban intensification, getting people out of cars and into public transit. Thus the need for a seamless infrastructure that begins where the front door ends.Because most stations include bus bays, they will have bigger footprints; yet even these could be fitted into or under larger developments. Sooner or later, this will happen. The train has already left the station.[email protected]

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