New departures – Pioneer Village & Finch West stations, Toronto

When it came to designing two new subway and bus stations in Toronto, Will Alsop decided to make a departure from traditional transport hubs, and to try and provide a little joy for commuters James Parker reports.

Will Alsop is famous for shunning timid solutions, and instead producing results that aren’t only surprising and engaging, but also uplifting and frequently joyful. From the Stirling Prize-winning Peckham Library sitting on stilts, to the even loftier and more contro- versial Sharp Center for Design at Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) in Toronto, his buildings can rarely be accused of failing to grab the attention.

Alsop’s practice aLL Design’s international pedigree in transport was established by the unusually spacious 1998 design for the North Greenwich Jubilee Line station, now enjoyed by millions every year visiting the O2. Already well-known in Toronto for in Toronto, the architect’s two new stations for a subway line extension in the city are also attracting interest across the world.

The Spadina extension constructed by the Toronto Transport Corporation (TTC) extends an existing subway line running north out of the city, connecting it to the neighbouring district of Vaughan. It features six new stations, which showcase the work of leading architects, including Foster + Partners who designed the new station for York University which falls between Alsop’s two stations – Pioneer Village and Finch West. The project team behind these is joint venture The Spadina Group Associates (TSGA), consisting of IBI Group, LEA Consulting and WSP, in collaboration with aLL Design.

According to Alsop, the client’s ambition was six stations which were “all different, and all good,” and they certainly represent a

wide variety of architectural approaches, brightening what is fairly nondescript subur- ban sprawl. While Fosters’ York University stop is a sleek, futuristic and low-profile form, Alsop has applied his customary joie de vivre to two very different buildings.

The TTC’s chief aim for the Spadina exten- sion was to considerably alleviate the major traffic issues many living in Toronto’s suburbs (or ‘subdivisions’) face on the roads. Will Alsop explains: “Toronto’s about 4.5 million people and growing, but the footprint is huge. The people living out in the subdivi- sions had no choice but to use a car.”

As a result, many routes are congested, for example the 401, running along the shore of Lake Ontario and thought to be the busiest highway in the whole of North America, “turns into a car park” at busy times, says Alsop. The overarching ‘driver’ of the new subway extension was to “get people out of their cars.”

Alsop’s firm were approached on the basis of its Jubilee Line credentials, says the archi- tect: “The TTC were aware of the Jubilee Line architecture and thought ‘we’ll have one of those,’ and to his relief it was not to be a design competition, but a direct commission. Alsop explains candidly: “ just waste so much human resource.”

He says that the controversial ‘box on stilts’ he created at the Sharp Center for Design did not put the client off, as it had proved itself a positive addition to the cityscape. “It changed Toronto tremen- dously, there was a 300 per cent increase in people wanting to study at the college in

one year. In addition, the Mayor of Toronto David Miller reported a 2.5 per cent increase in tourism, which may have increased since, and it hadn’t really been a tourist destination previously.”

Pioneer village

Working with local contact architect Richard Stevens, now with IBI Group, Alsop set about creating a building on Steeles Avenue which would achieve some of the same revitalising power for the area – regen- eration was a key aim for the client. While he gained immediate familiarity from initial client meetings where he realised some of the faces around the table were people who had worked on Jubilee Line stations, it was useful to have Stevens on board rather than set up a local office. “He speaks the language, so to speak, there are phrases used in North America that you need to unpick!”

The new $165m station now open at Pioneer Village was originally to be titled Steeles West, taking its name from the Steeles Avenue major road which the subway runs diagonally underneath. It was subsequently renamed Pioneer Village due to the nearby tourist attraction – a “recre- ation of what the pioneers might have built,” says Alsop.

The buildings are a refreshing change from the grey, sober stations commuters are so familiar with, and an attempt to provide a spring in their step as they board the train to work. Its twin entrances, either side of Steeles Avenue – are tall, kidney-shaped forms clad in vibrant corten steel; Alsop suggests the road’s name partly inspired the choice of material. Tapering enamelled steel sections in contrasting red appear as ‘legs,’ alternating with generous panels of fritted glass. Partly inspired by the shape of cathe- drals, Alsop says the entrances’ robust but playful forms emerged organically from an iterative process to identify the right amount of internal space for users, or put simply, “keeping working until you think ‘that’s right’.”

Both the unusual turret-like look of the entrances, and the fact their forms mirror each other, helps give the station a strong identity, enhanced by the quirky addition of its name in corten steel letters on their roofs. They can be seen from some distance away in the relatively featureless surround- ings. Alsop says: “Technically it works on the basis of ‘what the hell is that?’” The other major above-ground design elements are two bus terminals, connected to the subway station to enable passengers to transfer easily from one to the other, and one of which is now finished sporting a spectacular cantilevered roof.

Internally, aLL wanted to provide an inspiring, refreshing space, and a key part of this was an attempt to get daylight down to the platform level. To this end, the archi- tects designed a sculptural light shaft, which would provide natural light to the platform level on a bright day. Even on a dull day, this highly polished and faceted stainless steel ‘chandelier’ provides a point of interest for users, as shown at the open day held at the station last October, which led Alsop to remark: “People were standing there fasci- nated; you get all these strange reflections going on when you look up.”

This artistic feature enables passengers to have a connection with the sky from the platform, not often achieved in under- ground stations apart from notable exceptions like Fosters’ much bigger Canary Wharf station. Alsop says the question of “why do that, it’ll cost more,” was answered by benefits to the project programme: “it was really useful for taking things in and out of the station during construction.”

As passengers descend escalators to a relatively shallow depth of around 9 metres the central platform is gradually revealed with trains running either side, and angled concrete columns, echoing past Alsop projects. He rejects the idea that this is simply a ‘signature’ approach: “It’s one of the things I’m known for, but there’s usually a good reason for it, it’s not just a gesture.” The concrete has been formed in situ to a very high standard, with the final polished ovoid columns resembling gigantic dinosaur bones. Alsop is full of praise for the concreting, including the faceted walls, saying it’s “fantastic, really beautiful” and notes that the innovative method of pumping the concrete into columns’ formwork from beneath rather than above helped to avoid any bubbles.

A further art installation, called LightSpell, is yet to be switched on due to its potential for misuse. Berlin-based Jan and Tim Edler of realities:united designed 40 ceiling light elements (pictured on facing page) which could display text entered by passengers on five terminals. It remains to be seen whether this somewhat brave move on the part of the client will be realised as intended, or in a moderated form.

Seating displays further attention to detail in materials, with the white concrete benches having brass handrails to add a touch of luxury compared with a standard station offering. While passengers may not linger long in the entrance – before present- ing their Oyster-style passes in what is a cashless system – Alsop’s generous and light space provides enjoyment even for a short time. He comments: “I think that any station should provide a strong experi- ence, most people are going to work in miserable places.”

The station will serve up to 20,000 passengers every day, plus a car park allow- ing 1,880 users to park and ride, so is hoped to make a big difference to Toronto’s traffic issues. It has the potential to provide an unusually uplifting dimension to commuting in its physical form, without being overly theatrical.

Pioneer Village bus terminal

The completed bus terminal, which runs at 45 degrees from the road, and in line with the subway beneath it, enables passengers to connect easily from bus to train via escalators from the platform. However

linger long in the entrance – before present- ing their Oyster-style passes in what is a cashless system – Alsop’s generous and light space provides enjoyment even for a short time. He comments: “I think that any station should provide a strong experi- ence, most people are going to work in miserable places.”

The station will serve up to 20,000 passengers every day, plus a car park allow- ing 1,880 users to park and ride, so is hoped to make a big difference to Toronto’s traffic issues. It has the potential to provide an unusually uplifting dimension to commuting in its physical form, without being overly theatrical.

Pioneer Village bus terminal

The completed bus terminal, which runs at 45 degrees from the road, and in line with the subway beneath it, enables passengers to connect easily from bus to train via escalators from the platform. However while the airy interior has the same attrac- tive white concrete and brass handrail benches as the subway station, the roof is the star of the show. Seemingly floating above the building like a corten steel manta ray, it curves downwards at its centre to protect the fully glazed waiting area, and upwards through the protective overhangs on all sides.

The Toronto weather is worse than the UK in winter (although typically hotter in summer) so protecting passengers waiting outside was essential. The massive 19 metre cantilever to the south east end, partly supported by red and blue steel posts and enlivened by one or two red enamelled steel triangles, achieves this in dramatic style.

Alsop explains the “very simple” construction. “A series of internal columns support the trusses, which are quite deep in the middle.” The cantilever is achieved using additional trusses added on top of the roof – which are not visible from ground level. A sedum roof has been added although it covers a relatively small area; wild flowers preferred by Alsop were prohibited by the Canadian climate.

Each triangular panel of corten which makes up the cladding to the underside of the roof is bolted to the structure using rusted steel bolts. These were also Alsop’s second choice as brass was not feasible, but he compliments the clients on supporting his suggestions: “They just accepted what I was doing, there was no real push-back, they got it. I like to think they trusted me.”

Finch West

The other subway station Alsop has designed, the $165m Finch West two stops south from Pioneer Village, takes a diamet- rically different approach. Its form is something of a wry comment on how rail projects can require architects to ‘over- design’ to accommodate perceived future M&E needs.

The simple composition comprises a box glazed in multi-coloured panels, on which sits a longer box, clad in black and white cement strips, with a viewing window taking up the entirety of the cantilevered entire north elevation. This upper form is principally to contain the plant, which in Pioneer Village had to be housed in a separate building. Will Alsop explains the design thinking: “I learned on the Jubilee Line that you need to build an awful lot of switchrooms, however there are also a lot that are empty, people say they need it then it turns out they don’t.”

He adds: “I thought, I won’t make that mistake again, just make a big box that’s part of the architecture, and they can fill it up as much as they want.” Therefore, in future-proofing Finch West, he produced a top-heavy but interesting building that brightens up what is a pretty prosaic cross- roads site. He also engaged a friend, London-based artist Bruce MacLean to work with him on the project, particularly on sculptural forms within concrete elements around the station.

Alsop worked closely with McLean, a long-term collaborator, to “develop a concept of public art being woven into the very fabric of the station, to provide a unified language of design,” says aLL Design. Blending sculptural art into the architecture would also provide an echo of the distant past, alongside the modern form of the station. Examples include the columns, inspired by 6,000 year-old Minorcan pillars which supported subterranean houses, and the structures supporting the power substation referencing Ancient Greek stone caryatid figures.

Both stations include various sustainabil- ity-orientated features. These include minimal and energy-efficient HVAC, bicycle parking, green roofs minimising surface water run-off, and in the case of Finch West, a ‘cool roof’ painted with a special coating to reflect sunlight.

Conclusion

It’s a paradox that if buildings for trans- portation are designed properly and the trains run on time, users should not have to linger long enough in them to appreciate the architecture. This may be why highly considered and even inspiring design might not be seen as essential in such settings.

However Will Alsop disagrees. “Ideally you shouldn’t spend much time there because the service is efficient,” he says, “but the time you do spend should lift the spirits. It’s a simple and obvious thing to say.”