Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Architecture of Suicide

A few weeks ago now, I was riding my bike down Bloor Street and eventually came to the Prince Edward Viaduct, where the curious architecture of the bridge caught my attention -- a vast net strung up around us. It was as if we were nestled in the world's largest game of cat's cradle.

As it turns out the "net" is actually something called the "Luminous Veil", an anti-suicide barrier installed in 2003 and designed by Derek Revington at the University of Waterloo. Previous to the installation of the veil the viaduct had garnered the infamous distinction of being the most popular bridge in the city for suicides.

All around the viaduct are signs of its unintended use. On each side of the road at the east end of the viaduct there are large signs with a 24 hour phone number beneath for those who feel they need help. And below those, a conveniently installed phone booth. (On a sidenote: there is also a plaque instructing passers-by that this bridge was the one featured in the opening scenes of Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin of a Lion -- in which a woman falls off the bridge and is saved).

However, 7 years after the installation of the veil, it seems that while suicides from the bridge dropped from an average of 9.3 a year to zero a year, the overall suicide rate for the City of Toronto remained virtually unchanged.

The construction of the veil raises questions surrounding the social function of architecture: Can modifications to the built environment act as a kind of inanimate helping hand? Is the presence of a sign and a phone booth a kind of off-site social worker? And what happens when a piece of infrastructure is hi-jacked for an unintended purpose, especially one so heartbreaking?

It makes me wonder, too, why people choose certain bridges over others. I have heard that people will actually travel some distance to get to the Golden Gate Bridge in order to jump off of it. There is even a film about it called The Bridge. How does that lure get developed? In the report on the Prince Edward Viaduct the authors say:
The argument for putting a barrier on a notorious bridge as a suicide prevention tool is predicated on the idea that individuals contemplating suicide have a preference for that bridge over others in the area. "Suicide magnet" may be a particularly apt term that has been used to describe suicide bridges in the sense that different "magnets" have the ability to exert different amounts of pull and presumably, the more pull a "magnet" exerts the less interchangeable it is with other locations. p. 11
So, perhaps even in their most isolated state people yearn for a connection with others -- with something greater -- even if that connection is through death. Jumping off a certain bridge then becomes a statement or symbol, an induction into a community. However, the authors then conclude that the Prince Edward Viaduct was obviously not a strong "magnet" as suicides just moved to other bridges or means.

After I graduated high school, I heard that a student there had left a note saying he was going to jump off of a bridge in the area. Then he drove his car to a completely different bridge got out and, according to one witness, took off his shoes and simply walked off the edge. Would the Luminous Veil have prevented this? What if there had been a phone? Or maybe he would have simply got into his car and driven over to that other bridge instead.

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