Placemaking: Three Dark Figures
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Placemaking: Three Dark Figures

How one of North America's largest steel sculptures hides in plain sight on Dufferin.

Placemaking tells the stories behind the buildings that define the GTA, beyond the downtown core.

The stretch of Dufferin near Steeles is unexceptional. Driving along (and one is, almost certainly, driving), low peninsulas of mini-malls jut into bodies of asphalt anonymous as standing riders on the 29 at rush hour. The Federal Government Atmospheric Environment Services office building at 4905 Dufferin isn’t much different. A squat, earth-coloured compound pushed behind a dandelion-flecked swath of grass, the structure itself doesn’t call for attention. “I’m functional,” it says instead, to no one in particular.

Then you see the three-headed monster.

It sits casually before the building’s front entrance, spinning rust-caked appendages when the wind opts to strike it. Designed by Ron Baird and erected in 1971, it’s one of the largest steel sculptures in North America.

As the description from Environment Canada reads:

The stelcoloy® structure is 33.5 meters high and weights 31.75 tonnes. The upper parts have demon-heads denoting the gods of weather. Rather than being immobile, the sculpture is free to interact with the weather elements. Cup wheels, reminiscent of an anemometer (instrument measuring wind speed), revolve in the wind. Sun-shaped “metal discs clank, and air movements resonate through pipes and tuned metal arrays.”
The sculpture has been given a protective oxide coating which will rust in harmony with the weather and yet shield the steel from deterioration.

Baird didn’t bother naming his sculpture; following the logic of the times (it was the 1970s, after all) he went with a 17-line poem instead:

Three Dark Figures
Making the Weather
In Folk, in Myth, in Legend
A threefold test.
Schiva, Vishnu, Brahmin.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost.
Body, Mind, Spirit.
Triune, Triumvirate, Tribunal.
One is Isolate
Two is Divisive
Three is Peace.
Three is Torment.
Three is Potent.
Power, Power, Power.
Air, Fire, Water.
Three Dark Figures,
Making the Weather.

According to this description, the sculpture’s “three dark figures” are meant to represent the elements air, fire, and water. A pointy-eared, south-facing creature that roughly resembles a dog wields a staff that could be interpreted as a thunderbolt. Below it, a birdlike creature stands over a tilting wheel. Another creature faces opposite.

In Creating Memory: A Guide to Outdoor Public Sculpture in Toronto, author John Warkentin quotes a 2005 Toronto Star article which explains that Baird’s “interest in the primitive art of Africa and Egypt fuelled the creation of the primal heads that adorn the weather gods.” The result—after cringing over the use of “primitive”—is something at once familiar and absurd, spinning and waving in the breeze.

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