From an architectural point of viewit's a compelling problem. Most of the time, architects remove space to make buildings. But when called upon to design a public square, as at Yonge and Dundas, the job is to remove buildings to make space. To some extent, modern architecture is still coming up with definitions for such tasks.And that's not the only way the new square defies definition. "People don't seem to know what to do with the space," laments Carol Jolly, general manager of the Dundas Square board. The confusion might stem from the fact that at first glance it's a big chunk of public space with no apparent connection to buying things, thus making it a prime suspect for being a mirage. But don't worry - big business has a handle on the place.
In case you hadn't noticed, the square is on an incline, a 2.5 per cent gradient, to be exact, that's supposed to make it feel like a stage. But the stage managers want to book only one type of show, and you're not in it.
Turns out that large events will mostly be big-buck affairs. Jolly says the city originally wanted to set the rental fees even higher, but she managed to talk them down to a mere $3,000 for an afternoon booking. "The city expects it to be financially self-sufficient in three years, and it's not even finished yet," says Jolly. "We're in a hard place."
To its credit, the city decided to take ownership of 70 booking days, which it can grant to not-for-profits. So for a whopping 20 non-consecutive per cent of the year the square is technically public space. But that doesn't mean you should get any crazy ideas about using it - until you've read up on which of your pastimes are illegal. Skateboards are not welcome. Desecration of any flags is out, as is holding a candle. You're not allowed to stand on any of the tree planters, and you actually need a city-issued permit before you can ride your bike across it. (Beware, Critical Mass.)
And then there are actions that may not come up in bylaws but are effectively verboten. In early March, Adam Kiesen was making a giant peace sign in the snow with his feet when a Dundas Square security guard (employed by subcontractor Intelligarde, the same outfit that protected the homeless from the Pope Squat) started wrecking the sign, telling Kiesen the war was justified before allegedly flicking a cigarette at him.
Kiesen came back April 29 with some chalk and some friends. They proceeded to beautify the space with peace-themed temporary art, until the police were called. He was banned from the square for a year, and Brandy Kay was arrested for "mischief.' She was eventually released on the conditions that she would not go to Dundas Square and would never be in possession of chalk. "Not even for hopscotch?" she wondered aloud.
I went to the square's architects to see if this was all in the master plan. The answer was no and yes. James Brown, who along with Kim Storey designed it, takes some delight in watching people feel out for themselves how to fill the space. "You want to imagine that unplanned and planned things will happen there, large and small."
The way Brown tells it, one can almost imagine the square waking up very slowly as people wrap their heads around the idea that purposeless space means we can be the ones to give it purpose. "It's the city getting used to the square, the square getting used to the city." That is, if the city will back off and let such a process happen.
Asked if chalk-drawing offends his architectural sensibilities, he says no with a chuckle. "It's people using the place. We're trying to help people enjoy themselves."
At first glance it might seem mad to build a large open space for people and then hire other people to scare them away. But type "Dundas Square" into a Web search and most of the results lead to the companies that lease the surrounding billboards and telescreens.
Most notable is American media conglomerate Clear Channel, which inflicted on us the media tower atop the northwest corner of Yonge and Dundas. The other part of the visual noise crosswind is Skye Media, owner of the marginally less hideous signage on the opposite corner. Its Web site (which, in all the excitement over the development of the city's most "prominate" site, no one remembered to spell-check) crows that "the circulation count" in the intersection "is in excess of 100,000 viewers per day." Viewers? I thought I was a consumer.
Luckily, Dundas Square is still a fine place to hang out even if you haven't been getting the right memos. Viewer? Consumer? Whatever the hell you are, there's plenty of opportunity to be it at the square. With over 32,000 square feet of advertising looming over the place (the cheapest bit of which is one second of video for $1,000), there's no chance that you'll be unable to think of anything to rush into the adjacent Eaton Centre to buy. And that fact is unlikely to bother Cadillac Fairview, owner of the mall, longstanding business partner of Clear Channel and one of the first groups to approach the city about the redevelopment.
Clear Channel summed up the barony's attitude toward the area earlier in an outdoor-billboard-industry trade journal. (Is there a trade-journal-industry trade journal yet?) "There were a lot of low-end retail shops nearby," lamented Alan High, "and many panhandlers standing outside the mall's doors."
Terrifying. No doubt this attention to good taste rubbed off on City Hall when it penned the bylaw explicitly prohibiting beauty pageants in the area, since "events on the Square should not exploit bodies... solely for the purpose of attracting attention." After all, that kind of thing's reserved for the enormous ads featuring women spreading their legs for money surrounding the square, not actually on the square.
If you want to exploit women, you'll have to be more subtle. L'Oreal, which rented Skye's video screen, is mentioned on Skye Media's Web site: "Beneath the eye-catching glow of Skye Media's Videoscreen , L'Oreal Paris" went to the square to "promote" International Women's Day. "The larger-than-life video, and the polite postcard reminder communicate both messages effectively; EXPRESS YOURSELF ON INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY, and most importantly L'OREAL PARIS." So a few thousand will not only get you the square, but licence to poke feminism in the eye as well. Neat.
So the square is promoted as a venue for big promotions. What about the rest of us, if we decide to land on the square for sppontaneous events? "We can't just have anyone doing whatever they want,' says Jolly. "It depends on what the event is.'
Rather than treating this as yet another pre-emptive defeat for unmediated human interaction, perhaps it's up to us to take a cue from Brown's trickster-architect page and occupy that grey area. Brown's description of the best architecture sounds a lot like the best theatre: participatory. "You can imagine things there. You can see into it as a citizen. It makes everyone viewer and viewed," he offers. "What really makes a square is what people imagine into it. What it provokes."
And what is that god-awful thing but a provocation?