There's no there there.

In the final part of a series on place and placelessness, LISA ROCHON laments that Toronto's new Dundas Square fails on many levels as a public space.

LISA ROCHON Saturday, May 22, 2003

The municipal parking lot underneath downtown Toronto's Dundas Square is magnificent. It is a great, white-washed cathedral for cars, with graciously curving ramps and ceilings soaring up to 15 metres high. Park here for cheap. Then climb the stairs to the minimal glass pavilions with honed granite walls that greet you at the street. You've arrived -- or have you?

Dundas Square marks the largest creation of open, hard space in Toronto since the opening of nearby Nathan Phillips Square in 1965. But this isn't a place for people. Its first priority is to privilege the car. Like a highway, it provokes efficient crossings of people who seem intent on getting from one side to the other rather than risk being marooned on a granite island. On the northern edge of the site, there is an outsized zinc canopy with thick concrete columns. It might have been made of undulating pink titanium or ribbons of wood the better to satisfy our hunger for inner-city beauty. Unbelievably, what we've been dealt is a section broken off from the Gardiner Expressway.

There's more car to this square than you might first imagine. Look directly across from the Yonge Street edge to the elevated stage. Its southern edge has been angled up sharply, effectively skewing the attention to the small northern quadrant of the square rather than allowing a natural connection to the much larger area that spreads toward Yonge Street. This has nothing to do with the radical sculpting of volumes. Rather, the stage lifts up to allow for the gaping entrance of the parking garage underneath. On record, Brown + Storey Architects are the designers of Dundas Square. But let's face it: Cars are driving the design.

Cutting a void into the commercial strip at Dundas and Yonge has been imagined for decades. By the mid-1990s, the Yonge Street Business and Resident Association had organized to reclaim some of the vitality that had existed along the street before the opening of the Eaton Centre -- the consumer machine that sucked people off Yonge Street straight into its vortex. Buildings were restored and signage improved. The buff porcelain, ship-liner architecture of the Eaton Centre has long disappeared behind a stage set propped up by American advertisers.

A new, monumentally scaled public space was what was imagined for the intersection of Dundas and Yonge as well as billboards and video screens -- in short, a colourful, graphically designed kick in the ass. That Toronto was clearly knocking off New York's Times Square or Tokyo's Shibuya District (from whence the former came) was never an issue. Grabbing a piece of the action from a big, honking city seemed obviously superior to home-spun invention.

I shed no tears when four buildings were expropriated by the City of Toronto and bulldozed to make way for Dundas Square. Wars and natural disasters contribute urban voids on a regular, tragic schedule. To willfully cut an urban void in the unremarkable commercial strip of Yonge Street was brave and deliberate. A public space, charged like the 21st century, carried great promise. And recasting the city was on everybody's minds.

For two decades, Kim Brown and James Storey have contributed richly to the city, providing new models of thinking about the city's watershed systems and enlivening St. George Street with its landscape design. For its award-winning competition entry, Brown + Storey showed sexy computer models of a square brought alive by washes of blue. The square was typically shown from an aerial point of view as an assembly of streamed elements. It looked hot and industrial. A wall of fire seemed to glow from underneath the long, Dundas Street canopy.

But it didn't deliver. Not for things related to people. There are exquisitely cut stone benches on the plaza, but they're as hard on the seat as the granite stairs that lead up to the stage. Set into the black granite floor of Dundas Square, there's a grid of fibre-optic lights shining endless combinations of colour from tiny recesses. It's a delightful idea that suggests a witch's brew just beneath the surface of the square. But specks of light on an enormous stone field? The idea is condemned by a badly confused sense of scale.

Americans like to make far too much of the Canadian penchant for nice behaviour and compromise -- a little of this, a little of that and everybody is happy. Oh, for the thrill of deviating from the stereotype. But no such luck.

The $10-million budget for Dundas Square gives us a lot of granite, negotiations with the Toronto Parking Authority and a little je ne sais quoi design from the French in the way that two rows of fountains are neatly aligned to the south edge of Dundas Square. They're computer programmed to vary in height just like the five long rows of jets of water that French artist Daniel Buren used to transform the Place des Terreaux in downtown Lyon.

There's also the fact that Dundas Square pays homage to the avant-garde movement of landscape design. Remember that it is designed as a floor that rises up to a stage. This recalls the urban stage that Dutch architect Adriaan Geuze of West 8 designed for Rotterdam's downtown in 1997. He illuminated the edge of the raised floor so that the Schouwburgplein square appears to float at night. But his square is not a one-liner. Parts of it, like the ventilation towers with digital time displays, are industrial chic. But its many human gestures are idiosyncratic and beguiling: There's the long steel "ship's railing" to lean upon and watch passers-by. There are also flowering shrubs next to wooden slat benches -- sculpted to comfortably support the curve of a person's back. It's the kind of design detail that encourages people to stay a while.

Julio Cortázar wrote that a bridge exists only when a person crosses over it. A public space is nothing until people gather on it. If there are fees to be paid ($3,000 for a large gathering in the case of Dundas Square) and behaviour is controlled (no skateboards, no chalking, no biking) the chance of Dundas Square becoming a significant public space in Canada is seriously diminished.

What I've noticed over the past several months is that people, by day or by night, are reluctant to gather there -- if there are 10 people spread out in various locations on the Square, there are five, even 10 times that number positioned in front of the Eaton Centre. Much of the reluctance to kick back and stay a while has to do with the security guards tuned into the video monitors in the shelter next to Ticketmaster, who are paid to monitor behaviour.

So it was with considerable delight, during the long weekend, that I watched a slim man in jeans slip through the bureaucratic red tape and commercialization of Dundas Square to indulge a basic human desire for free, creative movement. (This is not recommended for anybody of any age unless the security guards have disappeared into the parking garage, as they did for a few important moments on this spring evening.) The man walked his way nonchalantly over to one of the fountains and stuck his feet into its gurgling waters. He stood there and gave his leather boots a good washing. Then he sat down on one of the stone benches to consider the sensation of wet feet. The idea pleased him. He got up and, this time, he walked through all of the fountains, his arms stretched out like wings, drenching himself thoroughly to the waist. After that, he didn't descend into the luxurious parking lot. He headed off down Yonge Street, and walked away from Dundas Square.