The City of Toronto has a Toronto Urban Design Percent for Public Art Program, for new developments of condominiums and other constructions. Within its official guidelines (which is FULL of examples and photos of public art both in Toronto and in other cities all over the world,) it displays a number of quotes. I’ve listed the ones here that I think best represent the way I see public art, and the way it has been appreciated and examined on a pretty regular basis via the ‘little bites big’ and ‘notice what you notice’ way of travelling through a space:
“Public art installations, both publicly and privately owned, make walking through the City’s streets, open spaces and parks a delight for residents, workers and visitors alike.” SECTION 3.1.4 TORONTO OFFICIAL PLAN, 2002
“For residents and visitors, public art has the power to create and reinforce a sense of community particularly in areas of new development where there may have been no previous permanent community. Public art offers not only an immediate topic of conversation, but an instant place-maker.” CITYPLACE PUBLIC ART PLAN, 1999
“Art can give public space a mark of distinction.” THE TORONTO STAR, DECEMBER 2005
The document is 40 pages long, and I did not read all of it, but the section on public art contributing to the urban landscape was of particular interest to me. I’ve lifted a few portions of this:
Different public art sites provide artists with the ability to engage fully in the city building process, adding richness and variety to the urban environment. Publi cart can also influence the design of the development proposal, affecting the layout of open spaces, public connections to adjacent features such as streets, parks and open spaces, and related requirements for setbacks and streetscaping.
Although there are a great variety of public art opportunities in the urban environment, public art can generally be described as “independent,” “site-specific” or “integrated.”
Public art opportunities include, but are not limited to the following:
- the conceptual framework to organize open spaces including parks, plazas, setbacks or streetscapes;
- an independent sculpture or two-dimensional work that marks an entryway, corner or feature area, and/or a view terminus;
- the combination of visual arts with building element design and/or landscape design including building facades, canopies, floors, etc.
- the idea behind an open space element such as the pavement and its pattern, a planted border, a wall, a fence, an entrance or exit; or
- functional and decorative elements of a site such as benches, bus shelters, water features, light standards or other open space and streetscape amenities.
The inspiration for seeking out this information today came from a short but artful stroll from Moss Park to St. Lawrence Market and back.
The late day sun, blocked by tall office buildings further downtown, wasn’t able to give light and warmth to many places, but it did cast a beam upon a square, chained black metal sculpture in St. James Park. From afar, it looked as though it might have been a gathering space for people to sit round and cook food. When we got closer, and were able to see the concrete bowl within, I wondered if it might have been a site for a installing a Christmas tree. We looked for the plaque nearby to be able to know what it was, but couldn’t find one. Instead, we found further divets in the ground around it that made us think that it might be structural or practical; for drainage. It turns out that is exactly what it was intended to represent. We found the plaque about a half hour later (when the sculpture was no longer in the sun):
“Catch Basin” – Nancy Holt 1982 – Lower chain added 2003 for safety reasons – TORONTO Culture
My partner noted that they didn’t make it very easy to learn the title or artist name of the piece, given how far away the plaque is. At the time, I wondered whether that might have been an artistic decision to allow those who interact with the piece most closely to determine for themselves what its purpose or meaning might be. Seeing the photo now, on a larger screen, I think it might just be that the piece is intended to be viewed from the sidewalk.
Who’s to know? Well, as it turns out, I just googled the name of it, and was immediately gratified with NOW magazine article, whose author had similar observations on the location of, and lack of information on the plaque. He did find out though, that “Catch Basin is intended as a celebration of the hydrologic cycle. It’s meant to symbolize that we humans can manage what the heavens offer in more eco-friendly ways, diverting rain water into lakes and wetlands, for example, instead of forcing the precious resource into concrete pipes underground.”
But, this piece was not part of Toronto’s % for Public Art Project, so I digress. Just north on Jarvis, on the other side of the street, we came across another sculpture called ‘Brickman’.
Its plaque was right below it and reads:
Brickman by Inges Idee, 2010.
Commissioned by Aspen Ridge Homes as part of the City of Toronto Private Developer Percent for Art Program.
Brickman is an urban figure, both abstract and figurative blending elements of 19th century history with a contemporary take on monumental sculpture.
The sculpture poses questions of human scale and urban development and comments on distinctive architectural materials and features in this historic area.
We noted how appropriate the term ‘human scale’ was to the piece, which is better illustrated with this shot:
I had wished that I’d taken a shot of this sculpture from further away, to show a different perspective on how big it is. All you can see from my own photos are that it is definitely smaller than the condos, but that the condos behind it must be part of the viewing experience. That is, until I went to Inges Idee’s site and found this artistic statement and gorgeous photograph of the piece from behind, with St. James Park in the background.
“The 8-meter high sculpture, placed in the heart of the old Toronto, depicts a perspectivally distorted, anthropomorphic figure made of bricks of ever-diminishing size. The perspectival distortion with an extreme vanishing point, makes the figure seem expressive and dynamic and simultaneously larger than it actually is.
Brickman is an abstract “urban figure” that quotes the smokestacks and dynamic of the big city and the grid of the streets surrounding it. It takes up the plunging lines of the rows of high-rises and the vanishing points of the streets that run perfectly straight for miles.
It relates to the masonry buildings of the neighborhood and takes people’s thoughts back to the period of Toronto’s early development.” ~ ingesidee.de
The last artistic observation from this afternoon walk came from a piece of art that wasn’t part of the Public Art Program.
In the back of a 197-199 Queen Street East is a private parking lot that has recently gotten a bit of a facelift:
The design is brilliant, because even if the wall gets tagged (again), as long as they kept some white paint and that same shade of yellow they can easily touch it up. The whole scene is quite striking with the contrast between the bright, crisp lines of the lamp ‘light’ and golden varnished wood of the medieval looking door against the faded grey of the concrete parking pad, mapped with unusable white lines and the twee little bird houses mounted on the original brickwork on the building next door. It’s like a scene in a play that I definitely want to watch. You’ll notice the black exhaust pipe (which I mistakenly labelled as a lamp in an instagram post earlier today) in the upper left section of the wall. On closer examination, I realized it was an art piece in and of itself:
On the way home, I wanted to grab some produce on Spadina. As per usual, I made my way through an alleyway for a shortcut, and exited onto Baldwin Street beside Kinton Ramen and this incredible mural by Shalak Attack, an emerging Canadian-Chilean visual artist dedicated to painting, muralism, graffiti urban art, and canvases.
And, though this post is dedicated to public art, I’ll end with this photo of the sky above Chinatown, which appeared like a sort of brightly lit, rainbow-like arc of cloud. Nature is, after all, the most public art of all: