Arc En Ciel Yorkdale Station

The tragedy of the lost rainbow at Yorkdale Station

I've always appreciated the art and architecture on the Spadina subway line. Opened in 1978, it features noteworthy murals by Louis de Niverville (Spadina south), James Sutherland (Dupont) and Gordon Rayner (St. Clair West), as well as architecture by Arthur Erickson. It also, at one point, included a spectacular light installation by Michael Hayden at Yorkdale Station called Arc En Ciel (French for Rainbow).

Unfortunately, I have only the vaguest memory of this piece, which was removed from the station in the mid 1990s. In fact, I didn't even know that I had a memory of the installation until I happened upon an article about it from back in 2006, which is archived on Transit Toronto. Written by the Globe's John Barber, it narrates what I think can be fairly called the tragedy of Hayden's Arc En Ciel.

The installation, which through the use of 158 coloured glass tubes, cast a pulsing neon rainbow over the station originally cost $250,000. And, with a program that allowed it to react to arriving and departing trains, it was one of those public art projects that just worked -- well, at least aesthetically that is.

As Barber tells it, eventually "a transformer blew out, disabling one of the 158 neon tubes that curved like ribs across the 174-metre-long vault. Then another blew out, and another. A minor design flaw allowed water to collect near them.... With about 20 tubes disabled and the sculpture beginning to look tawdry, Mr. Hayden suggested that the TTC repair it. There's no money, he was told. Wait for next year's budget. The artist suggested the remaining lights be switched off in the meantime."

But, as the columnist continues, "naturally, the money never appeared," despite the fact that the broken transformers cost about $28 (!) to replace. And "after years of wrangling, which never produced the money to do the repairs, the commission solved the problem by dismantling Arc En Ciel."

To say this is shitty is an understatement. Tough as it is to get a really good mental picture of the installation, I can still recall the way that it announced the passing trains with what I can only call was "excitement." It was, on account of Hayden's work, something of a special occasion to enter the train at Yorkdale back then.

Hayden, who was originally based in Toronto, is now probably best known for his piece, Sky's the Limit, at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Having learned from his experience with the TTC, when he entered into talks to install that piece he insisted that the client enter into a maintenance contact to ensure that such a fate wouldn't befall one of his works again.

Not surprisingly, it remains an iconic piece of the city's collection of public art. Arc En Ciel, on the other hand, is little more than a hazy memory. So, I'm left to ask, why TTC, why?

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