Poem 10: Radio in the Rain

I am waiting for you
to send me a message that says
at the power plant
we know little
but think more
tunnels and pipe,
trains that go nowhere
but their station.
We think
like a monk under the sun.
I am waiting for you
to send me a message
like a radio in the rain.

--Eli Fox

Article 16: What do designers think of the TORONTO sign?

Image by Sandy Plotnikoff

The TORONTO sign in front of City Hall has become perhaps the most photographed object in Toronto's design landscape. Built as a temporary installation for 2015’s Pan American Games, the sign is beginning to show its age and will require additional funding for maintenance—so at some point City Council will have to decide what to do with it. But, it hasn't been much discussed from a public design perspective. I contacted noted Toronto designers and asked all of them a simple question: What do you think about the sign?--David Stokes 

Daniel Young is a multidisciplinary artist. Some of his projects include the sculptural lighting at Mississauga’s Square One Shopping Centre, the public art installation “Nyctophilia” on Weston Road, a playground at Lee Center Park in Scarborough, and the film Camera Tracking a Spiral Drawn Between the Two Curved Towers of Viljo Revell's Toronto City Hall.

"What do I think of it? It's terrible. We have this great piece of architecture, Nathan Phillips Square, and a great piece of landscape design. It's one of the most important things in Canada, and then this fucking ugly stupid TORONTO sign on it. They should get rid of it. It's just that simple. I had a fight with my accountant about it because my accountant really likes it, she's like, ‘People really like it,’ and I was like, ‘Ugh!’ My God! What a piece of junk!  If someone wanted to do a good thing that said“Toronto” somewhere, sure. Look at how cool the word looks on Sandy Plotnikoff's artwork of post cards stamped "Toronto" but over images that have nothing to do with the city. We have a great piece of midcentury architecture and a landscape that should be respected and not junked up. It shouldn’t be on that site, or at least a designer should do a proper job on it. Unfortunately we need a much better audience for urbanism in Canada. People just like it because we're used to looking at commercial signage. People should develop a more sophisticated vocabulary to understand that City Hall is a very nice building.

Panya Clark Espinal has produced numerous works of public art in Toronto, working with the Toronto Transit Commission, Covenant House, and various community institutions in and around the city.

I don't like the sign. In the big scheme of things there aren't many things I have an opinion about, but I love Toronto City Hall. That building is so iconic and so beautiful, and the design has such integrity to it. I thought the sign would be temporary, and when I saw it just stay there I thought it clutters this beautifully designed space, and I really hope it doesn't stay. And I don’t understand the love affair with LED—there's a quality to that that's really overused and harsh now. There just is not the elegance of that site and that building. I get the marketing strategy, but there are so many other beautiful ways to market a city and that sign detracts from what is beautiful about that place. I get that we can’t just hold things in a timeless, frozen moment but city Hall is one of the most iconic and groundbreaking pieces of architecture in the city. Everything about it was thought out and to just throw this very commercially produced sign in there, there's nothing timeless about that sign. I'm so glad you called me to have the opportunity to officially voice this. I can feel the sign going somewhere along the waterfront where it’s a contemporary space and it’s a place where the aesthetic fits. But to me, City Hall with those arches and the ramps and the quality of the building and the Henry Moore [sculpture]—these are our iconic things that I just think should never be changed. I don’t think City Hall needs a TORONTO sign. You don’t have the Arc de Triomphe and put up a Paris sign. I say just get rid of it.

Chris Pommer is one of the co-founders of PLANT Architects, a architecture, landscape, ecology, furniture, art, and graphic design firm. In 2007 he was involved with the Nathan Phillips Square Revitalization at Toronto City Hall, along with Andrew Frontini of Perkins and Will.

The sign was a fine thing to have as a special event for the Pan Am Games. But we spent 10 years and $60 million dollars to open up the square and clean out all of the things that had been added ad-hoc to the square over 40 years to make a space that was a clean, open slate. For example, the theatre that we built was a replacement for a “temporary” trailer stage that sat on the square for 300-odd days a year. The square was under a lot of stress. We did a lot of historical research and tried to learn as much as we could about the original scheme and Viljo Revell’s [the designer of City Hall] use of formal imagery that embodied democratic ideas of the use of space. We even became acquainted with Viljo Revell’s daughters, one of whom is an architect in Helsinki, and we were gratified to learn that we got our interpretation right. By contrast, the TORONTO sign was built to be temporary, and it wasn’t all that well made to begin with. I’d like to see it use the same typeface used on the square with a link to the original project. And I would have kerned the letters better! As a temporary thing it’s totally fine.. But it’s the uncritical acceptance of it as a permanent thing that is the thin edge of just filling up the space again. It’s easy to read our take on it as being sensitive artists with bruised egos who feel that their work is being wrecked, but that's not really what it's about. I love fun temporary things, like Ai Weiwei’s bicycles, or tennis courts in the skating rink. But if there is going be a permanent change made to the square it should really be considered and it shouldn’t just be ‘is it popular?’ I’d be an idiot if I didn’t think there were would be changes to the site that we built.  People at the city have said to me ‘The sign, it’s so great! Now people are coming into the square!’ Well, people have been coming into the square and standing at that corner of the rink and taking a selfie with City Hall behind them long before the TORONTO sign. It’s fun and nice, but it’s no longer special. I got to take my picture with it, and now it’s just this other thing and it’s starting to look crappy and the square is getting cluttered again.  

Andrew Frontini is a Principal at Perkins+Will Architecture and the Design Director of the Toronto and Ottawa studios. Since 2007 he has been partner-in-charge of the Nathan Phillips Square Revitalization at Toronto City Hall, with Chris Pommer from PLANT Architects.

I think the sign is something that really engages people. People climb on it, stand in front of it, it situates people, and adds a graphic element, and those are all fun things. In the revitalization of the square, one of the ideas was to create this space that was really open for spectacles, events, temporary inhabitations of all kinds. So the ability of the square to accept the sign is great. But I do think it’s embarrassing that it still sits there and is decaying. What I think would be nice is if you created the opportunity to come up with a new sign or a new installation that occupies that space and engages people in that way. You don't have to hang on to a temporary installation until it falls apart in front of you. There’s a hilarious Toronto Star article by Edward Keenan where he imagines tours of Toronto in 2037 and the sign is still there but the only letters left are ROT. This paralysis around it is unfortunate. I think it’s okay to just take it away and create the opportunity for something new. You shouldn’t hold on to an ephemeral moment. I love Christmas, but I don’t need a Christmas tree up all year. Why doesn’t the square become a showcase for Toronto's talent, rather than this decaying effigy? I was on vacation in Mexico this past winter, in a small town, a real dusty pueblo, and in their main square there were these letters that were the exact same letters as the Toronto sign. Why don’t we make way for a more original expression that captures the vitality of this city? Because this is probably the most vital period of Toronto’s history Canada 150 is a great example of the lost opportunity. Here's this major event and we couldn’t come up with a new thing, we just use the Pan Am Games thing again? It just speaks to a lack of ambition—but Toronto is a bit famous for that. City Hall, however, is a real original statement, let’s let that be and not get in the habit of putting in a series of unplanned temporary things that become permanent. Let's keep it dynamic and fresh and celebrate creativity and not get bogged down with clutter. What happened last time I talked about this was that people said ‘oh architects are out of it, they're clueless, they're not in touch with the public.’ But I think if you let the sign come down and you put something back that was great people would love that too. In Orillia, around their market square, they do an art installation every year. It becomes something for people to look forward to and there’s this competitive spirit—how do we one up what we did last year? I think that City Hall can receive things like that. I think of Ai Weiwei's piece with the bicycles. Imagine pieces like that always coming in. I think the square should always be ready to receive something amazing like that.

Hunter Tura is President and CEO of Bruce Mau Design, and he has helped develop brand strategies for Samsung, Unilever, Sonos, Harvard University, the John F. Kennedy Center, and the new Design Society in Shenzhen. He organized the first BRAND x (Place) Conference in May 2015, has worked in the office of AMO/Rem Koolhaas, and has a Master of Architecture degree from Harvard University.

In the past five or 10 years, we’ve seen the iconic Instagrammable moment become how a number of cities think about their brand. The TORONTO sign created a sort of identifiable icon for the city. Our firm developed one of the earlier icons of the genre, which is the big AGO sign by their entrance, and that became a place where tourists had their Instagram moment. Increasingly, when we work with both developers and municipalities, this is something that gets built into the project, how a city, or a mall, or an institution will appear on social media and how that image gets exported. As far as antecedents go, the LOVE statue by Robert Indiana in Philadelphia was a breakthrough in the late 70s when a lot of businesses had begun to move to the suburbs and they were trying to activate life downtown. In more recent history, the “I Amsterdam” sign created by the municipality became the centerpiece of a global Heineken ad campaign. These signs are fun, and if designed well, they photograph well and they export well.Ever since Pan Am, the TORONTO sign became normalized and accepted as part of the image of Toronto. From a design standpoint it’s okay, it’s not the “I Amsterdam” where the verbal construction gives it more character than just the city name. But my kids view the TORONTO sign as one of these identifiable international images of the city, along with the profile of the CN Tower. And it was not a particularly expensive sign to produce, so the City has gotten an incredibly return on their investment. I’ve been in Toronto for seven years and Nathan Phillips Square, as an outsider, doesn’t have any immediate appeal that would, in my opinion, be compromised by the sign. We did a branding exercise for Canada with an American media company in 2012 and as part of that campaign we dropped the maple leaf out of the flag and used the bars to kind of frame different images. Younger Canadians loved the campaign but older people who had been through the process to arrive at a new national flag were horrified that we could so casually alter it. While the TORONTO sign has gotten a bit dinged up, I think that if it did come down, you would have people upset because it’s part of their everyday image of the city. The temporary status through Pan Am was actually kind of brilliant, a great way to get it into public acceptance. I think that if there was a competition or a concerted effort to create an icon to represent the entire city, that becomes a much harder thing to achieve because of all the attention around it. One of the things we have found with our work is a lot of these interventions are quite tactical—usually public-private partnerships—because when it is open to a larger public process we begin to have to engage stakeholders and ask the question: What is the icon for a multicultural city of 5 million people? And those can be tougher questions.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.