Views / Toronto

Hume: Toronto's new subway extension is beautiful, but it's not the line we should've built

Toronto’s new subway extension into York Region will make the already crowded metro more congested than ever, writes Christopher Hume.

The Pioneer Village station is among the most compelling pieces of architecture to appear in Toronto in years.

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The Pioneer Village station is among the most compelling pieces of architecture to appear in Toronto in years.

The second of Toronto's three White Elephant Lines opened this week, and although the new subway fails to address the city's most pressing transit needs, its six stations sure are pretty.

The extension, which joins York Region and Vaughan to the city, will make the already crowded metro more congested than ever, but for those who venture to Downsview and beyond, the recently opened stops are a stunning visual treat. Though some might see it as an attempt to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, this time, perhaps, it's a case of look good, feel good.

The Pioneer Village station, for example, is among the most compelling pieces of architecture to appear in Toronto in years. One of two stops designed by British architect Will Alsop, best known here for the “flying tabletop” at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, these exquisite structures, one on the north side of Steeles Ave., one on the south, are conspicuous in their presence. In such a sprawling and anonymous context, they stand out dramatically. Though as utilitarian as anything in this degraded landscape, they are also unabashedly beautiful. Not only do they demand our attention, they offer a vision of what might have been, and more importantly, what might yet be.

Alsop's other station, Finch West, is more playful. Its black-and-white bar-code facades provide a happily ironic counterpoint to the joyless consumerism of nearby malls. The coloured glass windows and walls by British artist Bruce McLean add a retro feel as they transform the view seen through panes of pink, yellow, green and orange. Finally, a station with rose-coloured glasses.

The busiest stop, York University, is expected to handle 27,000 passengers daily by the end of the decade. (By contrast, the King streetcar carries 65,000.) Designed by London-based Foster + Partners and Jason Bruges Studio, the massive facility is a subterranean city. The enormous boomerang-shaped structure is yet another sign that the 1960s commuter campus has caught up with the 21st century.

This clash between the suburban past and the urban present is most obvious at the spectacular glass-enclosed Vaughan Metropolitan Centre station, the last stop on the line. It features a polished stainless-steel ceiling punctuated with chamfered skylights that may be the most remarkable thing of its kind ever seen in these parts. Designed by Grimshaw Architects of London and Toronto's Paul Raff Studios, the station exemplifies the seamless integration of art and architecture in every station. Clearly, artists were brought into the design process early on.

It also illustrates the importance of light, the subtext of most artworks. Vast swaths of the Highway 407 station, for instance, are bathed in coloured light that shines through David Pearl's magnificent stained glass walls. Like many of the new stations, this is a true temple of transportation, most of it below grade. If passengers riding the epic escalators that connect its three levels feel they are entering a 21st-century underworld, it's because they are.

Even the least impressive station, Downsview Park, boasts similarly vertiginous moving stairwells. But the attraction here is Panya Clark Espinal's cleverly arranged piece; from most angles it appears nothing more than series of random swirls on various walls. From the right vantage point, however, they coalesce magically into large rings.

The problem, sadly, is that this isn't the line we should have built. “The top priority for the TTC is to provide relief for the Yonge line,” said outgoing TTC chair, Andy Byford, busy shaking hands with the crowds that gathered Sunday to gawk at the new subway. “By 2031, the Yonge/Bloor station won't be able to cope. We must have the relief line in place.”

Yet here is a line that leads to a construction site decades from completion. Though planners and proponents talk about a dense mixed-use community with its very own “Central Park,” that remains a long way off. Meanwhile, desperately needed transit in the city goes ignored. That's another reason Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's vapid verbiage about how the project will “improve the quality of life for hard-working people and their families” rings so hollow. If he and his entourage of back-patters assembled for last week's ribbon-cutting gave a toss about those who depend on the subway, they should follow the hoi polloi to the Bloor, Eglinton or Dundas stations in the morning or evening rush. Don't hold your breath for that, though, these aren't places for princelings.

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