Reading: Bright Side – Can Construction and Art Co-Exist in an Urban Space?

Bright Side – Can Construction and Art Co-Exist in an Urban Space?

If we’re going to live in a city of perpetual construction sites (and, subsequently, that maddening traffic you can always count on to ruin your morning), we should at least give them some added value. 

Thankfully, a 2014 law made it mandatory for Toronto developers to allocate at least 50 per cent of the hoarding around construction sites that line the public right-of-way to community artwork.  Historically, the hoarding around things like condominium developments was reserved for glossy ads for the development or plain plywood (dotted with posters and sloppy graffiti), instead of offering a blank canvas for art on busy streets. 

Public art not only beautifies these spaces, but can serve as a language through which to foster civic engagement, and offer opportunities for communities to shape their city.

If you’ve had a moment to stop to take in Toronto’s scaffolding, you may have noticed that many new construction sites – from those of future glassy condos to upcoming subway stations – now double as public art projects, breathing colour and creativity into otherwise brutally monotonous eyesores.  Instead of the uninspiring hoarding, these sites now offer captivating eye candy to the daily commute with bold colours and images.  They tell stories and inspire conversations. Other sites, however, remain as uninspiring as a traffic jam, partially because the bylaw doesn’t apply to the many buildings that started before it took effect – and let’s be honest, it’s not an easy sell to get some developers to embrace the art world unless they have to. 

the-patch-project-erin-davis

Toronto-based The PATCH Project, part of the Sustainable Thinking and Expression on Public Space (STEPS) initiative, however, helps the developers’ cause when it comes to beautifying their sites with bold artwork, by connecting them with local artists. “Unprecedented urban development is resulting in rapid neighbourhood change, and while that’s leading to capital investments, it can also result in the erasure of histories, landmarks and public spaces,” said Alexis Kane Speer, Executive Director, of The STEPS Initiative.  “Public art not only beautifies these spaces, but can serve as a language through which to foster civic engagement, and offer opportunities for communities to shape their city.”

As Kane Speer highlights, in addition to preserving and shaping the character of neighbourhoods, construction art also adds value by encouraging pedestrian activity (helping local businesses in the process) and deterring vandalism.  For artists, the art-filled hoarding provides exposure to thousands of pedestrians each day at a time when eye-catching public art gets photographed and shared (a lot) in our social media-fuelled culture, offering opportunities for “like-worthy” praise for both the new project (a win for developers) and artists.  The public art initiative also makes art more approachable to the art newbies by dropping it into daily life.

While wearing headphones, Vickerd looked up at the handful of cranes that dotted the sky, noticing that their movements synced with his music.

We could, however, also take construction site art beyond the hoarding.  In Washington, D.C.’s biggest developer, Brian Coulter, incorporates art into many projects.  This has included an illuminated, colour changing, 10-feet tall, 1,300-pound moon suspended from a crane.  In Vancouver, Christmas lights have decorated cranes for decades during the holiday season, brilliantly illuminating the city’s skyline.  With light art the latest rage (thanks, in part, to its Instagram-ability), it would be interesting if Toronto cranes could become landmarks in the same fashion year-round – especially in the tourist-filled summer months. 

Cranes have even been used as performance art.  In 2009, Toronto-based artist Brandon Vickerd choreographed a synchronized, hour-long dance performance with two construction cranes as part of the city’s Nuit Blanche festivities.  In 2015, he brought “Dance of the Cranes” to Washington and Edmonton.  The idea, he says, was inspired during a walk through Toronto’s Liberty Village neighbourhood nearly a decade ago, at a time of rapid development.  While wearing headphones, Vickerd looked up at the handful of cranes that dotted the sky, noticing that their movements synced with his music.  “I don’t think people take the time to look up and think about these massive machines that are rebuilding the city, or the skill involved, and how it shifts the way we think about the city,” said Vickerd. 

Vickerd acknowledges the oppositional relationship between the public and developers, the latter of whom face constant criticism concerning everything from traffic and congestion, to soaring real estate costs and business losses.  “Developers are typically gun-shy about engaging the public and drawing attention to the city change and to developments,” says Vickerd.  “But there is room for a conversation between all parties involved, and public art can stimulate this conversation.  Whether you’re pro or anti-development, art can act as a bridge.”  He says construction site art can both positively change the way the public thinks about the role of developers, and offer developers a way to repay city residents for the headache (or never-ending migraine) caused by construction sites. 

Yonge-Charles-August-8-2017-Alia-Youssef-7-2

Finally, abandoned buildings on construction sites – which could sit vacant for years – can also offer prime real estate for pop-up arts and culture initiatives, especially when rampant gentrification and soaring real estate costs regularly close gallery doors. 

While the recent incorporation of art on construction sites is obviously positive, it would be valuable to see regulations soar past a 50 per cent minimum requirement  (after all public art can be as impactful for sales as large-format advertisements) or for developers who aren’t legally required to do so to jump on board.  In a city of increasing density, we need to be multi-functional with our use of space and infrastructure – whether that means construction hoarding, cranes or vacant buildings.