CULPRIT: The HBC Obelisk
SCENE OF CRIME: Yonge & Bloor
SENTENCE: 6/10 whacks
As if stolen from a suburban strip mall by drunken frat boys and plunked-down at Yonge and Bloor as a joke, there it stands. This is one of our busiest intersections, after all, and what better trail marker warrants such prestigious placement? “The subway? Yes, ma’am, just to the left of the hideous yellow box. You can’t miss it.”
Its cheap metal skin is like a car colour that’s available but nobody ever chooses. In an homage to signs of the 80s, its LEDs announce the time and temperature, though the display is woefully invisible in direct sunlight. Almost as a joke, the top is beveled into the classic pyramidon that crowns proper modern obelisks like the Washington Monument.
Much is planned for this stretch of Bloor, and one can’t help but hope this sickly monstrosity is one of the the first casualties of renovation. That being said, the column is sadly appropriate for the much-maligned Hudson Bay Centre it represents. From the exterior, the HBC is also excruciatingly ugly, bland, and featureless.
If the monolith is set to disappear with the upcoming streetscape improvement program, I call on Torontonians to support the installation of a different type of structure: a memorial to the legendary Ben Kerr.
Known as Toronto’s favourite street performer, cayenne king and fringe mayoral candidate, Ben Kerr virtually owned Yonge & Bloor. For two decades, he brought life to a windy, soul-sucking intersection and was beloved by residents and tourists alike. The dismantling of the old sign and erection of the new bookended his death last summer, and the concrete block that remained became an de facto memorial with posthumous messages scrawled by grieving fans.
With the somewhat forced relocation of chalk artist Victor, also a former fixture of Yonge & Bloor, the only life that remains here is the purposeful flux of the corporate crowd. The loathsome HBC obelisk is like a stake driven into a cement heart; a harrowing mast of mediocrity.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the sign was designed with foresight and context instead of as part of a To Do list when the Hudson Bay Centre was renovated. Had there been an aesthete in the boardroom, the marker might have been designed by a local artist and cast in solid stone or concrete. The baby-poop corporate colour would have been foregone for a more appealing tone, and some real civic awareness might have been shown with a memorial plaque to the freshly-absent Ben Kerr. Perhaps wealthy HBC tenants like RBC and The Bay itself could have contributed to a public art commission for the spot.
My recommendation would have been to build a memorial platform to Kerr, which would have solid steps leading up to a small dais from all angles. Inscribed into the base would be Ben’s story, and the small podium could be co-opted by any busker, preacher, performance artist or tourist who felt compelled.
Recently, a group of tourists asked me where Yonge & Bloor was. I answered, but asked them what they were looking for specifically, thinking that they were trying to find the subway entrance. “Because we heard that it’s a famous intersection,” they responded. “We always hear about it on TV.”
It was somewhat interesting once, with an charming old musician who proclaimed himself “Better Than Viagra” and an immensely talented chalk artist. Now, on the northeast corner of this windswept intersection where life peered from the cracks only a year ago, we have a solemn headstone marking a spot of lost opportunity.
The Ugly Stick is intended to be a new semi-regular column on poor urban design and architecture in Toronto. Know of any other particularly hideous or simply uninspired structures that look as if they were beaten with an ugly stick? Suggestions are always welcome.