Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Every City Needs a Stairway to Nowhere

When the entries for the Toronto Entertainment District BIA's competition for a public space at John and King were announced, I was immediately drawn to the proposal for a King St. Staircase--or, really, a staircase to nowhere. The vision statement on the website says:

It will be a piece of urban sculpture and a landmark. Since the stair will be a destination in itself, then its shape can take cues from the surrounding buildings and pedestrian movement. Its forms can be designed to support the area's activities: bleachers during the marathon or a Walk of Fame commemoration; a viewing platform for celebrity sightings or events during The Toronto International Film Festival.

Instead, what won was the Urban Ballroom, which consists of spherical seating (reminiscent of those giant, rubber excercise balls) scattered underneath a net of solar-powered globes. Although a nifty idea in itself, it looks like one of those ideas for a public space that look great for a year or two before upkeep and maintenance costs cause it to slowly degenerate. It's also a space with less flexibility as it would probably look way better at night than in the day, much like how Christmas lights on houses look nice at night, but like ugly lines of wires and bulbs in bright daylight. Also, what is up with the elderly lady carrying WAY too many shopping bags? Clearly someone needs to help her home.

There are two great spots in central downtown Vancouver for people-watching, lunch-eating, outdoor-reading, sitting-and-staring, and various other hyphenated activities. These are the public steps to the Vancouver Art Gallery (both the south and north sides, which offer different levels of public display and privacy depending on your needs), and a few blocks east on Robson at the half-circle steps leading to the Vancouver Public Library. The funny thing is that neither staircase necessarily leads anywhere. The entrances to neither the art gallery or the library are at the top of the stairs. Essentially, they go nowhere.

But there's something about a staircase, even when they lead to nothing, that draws people. It's the ability to sit, obviously, but also the ability to rise above the action of the city, providing a better vantage point from which to look. They also provide ready made seating arrangements for outdoor buskers and various political rallys and other events, something that the steps at the art gallery and the library are used for often.

I've often thought, wandering around Toronto's downtown as I did in the summer, that there weren't enough spots from which to just watch the action. There are scattered benches and public plazas here and there, but nothing like the Vancouver Art Gallery steps where you are treated to a steady stream of people. Yonge & Dundas Square is too frenetic for me, and also doesn't really contain very much seating so that the effect is kind of a concrete field amidst towering advertisements. The King St. Staircase could have filled this vacuum, providing a locus for people in the area while being flexible in its uses and easy to maintain.

I suppose I could always just bring a step ladder to a crowded area, set it up, and sit atop for a few hours, but somehow it just doesn't have the same effect.


  1. Great post, Jake.

    And I bet the VAG stair miss you too :(

  2. I just laughed out loud (in class) at your comment about the old lady ...

  3. I've always been too scared to sit on the VAG steps. They're usually occupied by creepy couriers, urban campers, various other members of the Great Unwashed, and their starving dogs. The smell of human musk and stale weed is almost overpowering.