Remember this sculpture? It disappeared from the TD Centre plaza last year. It consisted of enormous curved bronze slabs set across from one another to form a ring. There were three large, bronze chairs arranged around the outside of the ring. The title of the sculpture was The Ring. Which seems appropriate.
Observant readers have sent us emails wondering what might have happened to The Ring. We were curious, too. The piece was a conspicuous, long-standing presence, right in the shadow of one of Toronto’s most significant architectural landmarks. Then, one day, it went pouf.
We know now what happened to The Ring. There’s a little bit of a story to tell, but first we’ll spoil the ending: it ain’t coming back.
Word came courtesy of David Hoffman, senior property manager of TD Centre. Hoffman is an employee of Cadillac Fairview, the corporation that owns and operates the TD Centre complex. In an email, Hoffman told us that TD Centre has developed a long-term revitalization strategy with which The Ring simply “does not align.” The goal of the revitalization, he wrote, is to restore “the original integrity and vision of Mies van der Rohe’s architecture at the TD Centre.”
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is the architect who designed TD Centre. His initial plan for the site included the plaza and the concourse, as well as the first three of the complex’s seven extant buildings: the fifty-six-storey TD Bank Tower (which was the first of TD Centre’s towers to be completed), the forty-six-storey Royal Trust Tower, at 77 King Street West, and the single-storey Banking Pavilion just north and to the west of the TD Bank Tower.
Mies is something of a legend. Prior to his work on TD Centre, he designed the world-renowned Seagram Building in New York City. He was one of the chief promulgators of the international style, a school of thought that helped change the face of corporate architecture during the middle of the twentieth century. Builders in the international style eschewed excess ornamentation, used glass and steel as primary structural materials, and strove to ensure that form always followed function. Every “glass block” skyscraper owes something to the international style, and, by extension, to Mies van der Rohe.
It is, incidentally, a very safe bet that, as Hoffman suggests, The Ring was not a part of Mies’s vision. When the sculpture was installed, the celebrated architect’s visionary days were over—he’d been dead for sixteen years. Even so, from beyond the beyond, Mies is exercising a kind of claim over TD Centre. Which brings us to a question. It’s an important one to keep in mind:
To whom does the TD Centre plaza belong?
Photo by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.
Legally speaking, the answer is Cadillac Fairview. In fact, they’ve been slowly consolidating their ownership of the complex ever since it was built.
TD Centre was originally developed by Fairview Corporation, who, to finance construction, had entered into a 50-50 partnership with TD Bank. Later, in 1974, Fairview Corporation merged with Cadillac Development Corporation, a builder and operator of apartment buildings and subdivisions. The result of this epic marriage of corporate convenience was Cadillac Fairview. Partial ownership of TD Centre was part of the dowry. In 2000, TD Bank sold their share of TD Centre to Cadillac Fairview. Cadillac Fairview now owns the complex—lock, stock, and plaza.
But on the day in early June when we first visited the plaza to investigate The Ring’s disappearance, we found a different group of people walking around as though they owned the place. Picketers.
After talking to a few of them, we learned that the company they were picketing was none other than Cadillac Fairview. Their union, CEP local 2003, which represents trade, maintenance, and loading dock workers at the complex, had been in talks with Cadillac Fairview until June 14, when the corporation had ended negotiations by banning them all from the complex. It wasn’t a strike; it was a lockout.
(Two weeks later, on July 14, we learned that Cadillac Fairview had fired all sixty-one union workers and replaced them with the contractors that had been performing their jobs even as they were picketing. See their Facebook group and blog for details. A hearing with the Ontario Labour Relations Board is pending.)
The TD Centre Baking Pavilion, designed by Mies van der Rohe. Photo by arcticlamb, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
The picketers were not welcome on the plaza. The security guards keeping track of their movements with camcorders on tripods were incontrovertible evidence of this. At the same time, because the activities of the picketers were confined mainly to the sidewalks abutting the plaza, they couldn’t actually be forced to leave. They were maintaining a presence on the plaza without actually needing to set foot upon it.
The ability of the picketers to remain so near the TD Centre plaza against the wishes of its owners brings an important feature of the plaza into relief. Though it is owned by a corporation, it is designed to be nearly continuous with Toronto’s public sidewalks. It’s private property, but it’s intended for enjoyment by everyone. Considering the type of place it is, this makes perfect sense. Why spend millions of dollars on several forty- and fifty-storey pieces of jewellery that can’t be shown off?
The conflation of public and private at TD Centre is so complete that, in the absence of the security detail, most people visiting the site for the purposes of sightseeing or relaxation wouldn’t wonder who owned the plaza. They’d have no reason to care. And why would they care about obscure minutiae like that, when the best things about the TD Centre plaza are blindingly, beautifully obvious?
Four of the six towers that comprise the TD Centre complex loom over the plaza (the other two, one of which was purchased from another owner in 1998 and does not look like the others, are located just south of the plaza, on the other side of Wellington Street). Standing beneath them, one feels the presence of immense amounts of money and influence, as though raw economic power has coalesced on the spot and crystallized into these huge rectangular forms. The towers are tall, they are virtually featureless except for the steel I-beams that rib them lengthwise from top to bottom—and they are all very, very black. The plaza itself is expansive and austere, paved with dark grey, square slabs of granite. TD Centre is a sublime landmark, without question.
The Ring stood in the midst of the part of the plaza originally designed by Mies van der Rohe before his death in 1969, just in front of the TD Bank Tower, east of the one-storey Bank Pavilion that occupies the plaza’s northwest corner. The spot is now a flat, empty apron of grey slabs. It’s as though nothing was ever there. One of the picketing workers told us that the paving stones in the vicinity had been badly cracked and damaged prior to The Ring‘s removal, and that they had just been restored. He supposed the new paving stones had cost Cadillac Fairview millions of dollars. The new stones are sparkly. They look great.
Was The Ring an unwanted visitor at TD Centre? During a phone call, David Hoffman clarified some of the finer points of the decision-making process leading up to the sculpture’s removal. “We originally were looking at a plaza revitalization,” he said, “and we planned on removing the piece just so that it wouldn’t get damaged.” Hoffman said that Cadillac Fairview had consulted with art experts and the piece’s creator, an artist named Al McWilliams, who had provided assistance with the removal process.
Then, at some point after the removal of The Ring, Cadillac Fairview management, in consultation with their art experts, decided the absence of the sculpture was a change for the better and that the removal should be permanent. The Ring is currently in a storage facility in Mississauga.
“We took great care and diligence in removing the piece,” said Hoffman.
Twenty-four years ago, a different group of Cadillac Fairview managers took great care in putting it there.
A member of The Pasture, by Joe Fafard. Photo by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.
The TD Centre plaza’s first sculptures were originally designed in response to a nationwide open call. After a long selection process, two proposals were plucked from the project’s shortlist and commissioned for installation in the complex: The Ring, by Al McWilliams of British Columbia, and The Pasture, by Joe Fafard of Saskatchewan.
The two sculptures were installed in 1985, to coincide with the completion of the TD Waterhouse Tower, a thirty-six floor building. It’s one of the two TD Centre towers that stand just south of the plaza on the other side of Wellington Street.
The Pasture, which consists of a series of bronze cattle in various states of repose, was originally located south of the plaza, next to the newly completed building (which was then known as the IBM Tower). The Pasture has since been relocated to a lawn in the centre of the plaza, where it has become a beloved fixture, and a prop in untold thousands of tourist photographs.
A November, 1985, review of the sculptures (still, at that time, brand new), by the Globe and Mail’s John Bently Mays, was overwhelmingly positive. Mays commended The Pasture for its ability to “bring back the pastoral history of the site with a playful vengeance,” but he reserved his best praise for The Ring, which he said was:
…best understood as an essay on the immensely authoritative visual forms that surround it. McWilliams begins by taking seriously Mies’s loftily intellectual architectural program, then proceeds to address it point by point. The non-functional chairs in the radically functional plaza, the bronze circle in the stone square, the weathered metal, with its allusions to the wearing of time, in the middle of architectural timelessness – these are the elements of McWilliams’s very civilized, gently humorous conversation with Mies. He shares with Fafard both respect for the prestigious site, and a mature determination to question it.
Cadillac Fairview’s current position with respect to The Ring is not so much a reversal of this early assessment as it is a sidestepping of it. They’re saying that no matter what McWilliams’s intentions for the piece might have been, the fact that it doesn’t conform to Mies van der Rohe’s original vision for the site makes it worthy of removal.
There is a slight snake-eating-its-own-tail quality to this reasoning, requiring, as it does, an acknowledgement of the ongoing rights of artists following the completion of commissioned works, coupled simultaneously with a readiness to disregard those rights, while still using them as justification. In other words, they’re removing one work of art to restore another. (This is especially ironic in view of the fact that Cadillac Fairview, which also owns the Eaton Centre, was the defendant in one of Canada’s seminal moral rights lawsuits.)
Quibbles aside, Mies van der Rohe was a giant, and so it’s natural that a company in possession of one of his works (one of his last), would want to protect its integrity. But is there a point at which conforming to the dictates of the dead becomes onerous? After all, Al McWilliams, still very much alive and productive, also put something of himself into the plaza. He spoke with us from his studio in Vancouver.
“It all happened in a really underhanded way,” he said. “They’ve not been very fair to me.”
McWilliams’s version of the story leading up to the sculpture’s disappearance mirrors David Hoffman’s in many respects. McWilliams said he first learned of the piece’s impending removal last June, from Kathryn Minard, a Toronto-based art consultant hired by Cadillac Fairview to appraise The Ring. Minard was under the impression that the removal would be temporary. (Hoffman said that Cadillac Fairview’s initial intention was to remove the piece for just long enough to make repairs, so Minard probably was not being misled.)
McWilliams stopped in Toronto, took photographs of damage to The Ring, then sent engineering drawings to Cadillac Fairview, to assist them in removing the sculpture safely.
In September, after hearing nothing more about the fate of his sculpture, McWilliams said he emailed Minard, who put him in touch with Hoffman, who informed McWilliams that the decision had been made: The Ring would not be returning to its original location on the plaza. “There was no consultation whatsoever about the permanent removal of the piece,” said McWilliams, who laments the fact that he never had an opportunity to make a case for The Ring before it was put in storage. “I know it’s theirs, and I suppose they do have that right to do with it as they wish,” he said. But the lack of courtesy and opportunity for appeal was still galling.
“I spent many days staring at that space,” said McWilliams. “It was all done in respect to Mies van der Rohe.”
But The Ring was more than just an homage. It had an existence of its own during its time on the plaza.
When the piece was defaced with spray paint, McWilliams personally assisted with the cleanup. This required reapplication of the sculpture’s patina (his own formulation), and the addition of a layer of protective wax, which made the surface of the bronze slightly darker and less vibrant as it aged and weathered than it otherwise would have become.
A couple was married inside The Ring, with McWilliams’s blessing. Their wedding bands were the same colour as the sculpture.
The piece was a fixture for over two decades. “It has a life,” said McWilliams.
And it may have an afterlife. Clara Hargittay, a public art officer for the City of Toronto, confirms that Cadillac Fairview has offered The Ring to the city for placement in an alternative location. The city is working with Cadillac Fairview to find an appropriate site, but nothing definite has been decided upon. Hargittay said that the likely candidate is a plaza in front of a soon-to-be-built provincial courthouse, in Etobicoke.
The city is doing the best they can, but this idea is a little underwhelming. After twenty-three years in conversation with a landmark, The Ring will spend the rest of eternity hanging out with a courthouse (maybe). Is this what Mies van der Rohe would have wanted? Possibly, but regardless, it seems clear that the chief beneficiary of the decision not to reinstall the sculpture is Cadillac Fairview. Transporting tons of bronze back from Mississauga and erecting it safely on freshly restored granite is hard work, and it’s not cheap.
The Ring was Cadillac Fairview’s to remove, but it lived out its life in a place where the public could get to know it, and perhaps even form attachments to it. It was a comely piece of furniture and a carefully wrought artistic gesture, and its quiet removal is a reminder that not all public space is necessarily common property.
Be it a sculpture, a plaza, a building, a grungy (affordable) neigbourhood, or a job maintaining any of the above, there might always be a person, organization, or venerable ghost in a position to eradicate that beloved thing by fiat. This is a risk both we and our art objects take in exchange for the privilege of life in a big city, complete with beautiful black giants in the sky.