Consider the post and ring.
Apocryphally dreamt up by a sozzled Jack Layton, the iconic Toronto bike lockup is the apotheosis of functionality. And yet, in its way, it’s singularly beautiful.
The steel-in-concrete understatement harkens back to the smiling make-do urbanism of Sesame Street, to the stripped-down New York of 1970s film, to a time when cities were cities, not vending machines. It suggests a Toronto that’s comfortable in its skin, implying that your city is what you make of it. In this there is elegance, and the old hope that this town’s predictable love of efficiency would one day grow up into poetry.
Compare the original post and ring to the new Astral “street furniture” unveiled last week and see how it speaks the tongue of grey, acquisitiveness, boredom and plastic.
Common to these qualities: swoosh. The new fixtures scream it. The garbage can lids go swoosh. The roofs on the bus shelters, pay toilets (public loos the homeless can’t use? Pourquois?) and ad pillars go swoosh together like synchronized swimmers. They’re all up in your face with swoosh, like the Flash intro to a webpage selling astronaut bridesmaid’s gowns in an alternate year 2000.
It’s well beyond your daily recommended dose of retro-futuristic. And since we’re already being nostalgic, I’ll let Robert Pirsig (Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance) have a word:
“...typical of modern technology [is] an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of ‘style’ to make it acceptable.... [Its] technological ugliness [is] syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don’t know where to start because no one has ever told them there’s such a thing as Quality in the world.”
The bus shelters, especially, look set to be the altars of The City That Tries Too Hard. Do you not love riding the bus? Of course you do – just look at the operatic gesture of the bus shelter o’er your head! You love riding the bus! We all love riding the bus! And we have made tiny temples to our bus-riding love!
You know what? I love riding the bus when I love what I’m doing with my life – which I tend to be better at when I’m ignoring the subtle derision of backlit bus shelter ads.
And I’ll love riding the bus even more when there are more buses. I’ll happily wait in a discarded fridge if “frequent service” really means frequent service. But it’ll only take one overlong transit intermission for these new shelters to get very cloying very quickly.
To swoosh add texture. Bumps and ridges and such. They’re particularly prominent on the new garbage cans, which in design parlance are “tactile,” like bubble wrap. Why is it there? Why not? It’s not as though you know what you like anyway – you live in Toronto. That’s the apparent suggestion.
The furniture – bus shelters, corporate poster pillars outfitted with maps, and publication boxes – should never be more interesting than the adverts on it. And the structures that don’t have ads should make you think of the ones that do.
Why else would anyone have seen a need to tinker with the posts and rings? Astral initially wanted to replace them with things resembling horseshoes with rickets and arthritic afro picks. Designers were asked to go back to basics, in a conversation I imagine went like this:
Astral: Sorry, Jeremy [Kramer, designer], they really want the originals.
Kramer: But my designs had swoosh. Did they notice the swoosh?
Astral: They did. I’m as confused as you are.
Kramer: Well, all right, we’ll use the originals – if they taper.
Kramer: A taper is like a baby swoosh.
With the ring now tapering and the contact points needlessly accentuated like the joints of a manga robot, an icon of urbanism plays second fiddle to a cacophony of commercialism. It’s a subtle monument to change for change’s sake – seeming to say that no one really wants things to just be what they are, and goodness knows we won’t be the ones to suggest otherwise.
In some ways, the furnishings are to be thanked for their honesty: behind the hand-waving style and the busy adverts’ faux artistry, suggesting but never delivering real variety, is grey plastic. The ads say diversity, opportunity, vibrancy, but the plastic says uniformity, predictability, banality. They say money. These fixtures are cells in a spreadsheet, the accountant behind the curtain.
But they’re also monuments to a stratum of society whose concern for the public good seems to have atrophied long ago. What really depresses is that they mark an era of accepted mediocrity when few people believe the largest city in Canada should be able to afford to pay for its own benches and bus shelters.
They are manifestations of a civic mindset imprisoned by both necessity and lassitude. And so, over the next 10 years, Toronto will get decked out like a Transformer preparing to turn into a laptop, and you won’t lock up to a post and ring so much as a PowerPoint presentation on a post and ring.