As the sting of Toronto’s seventh-game loss to Boston fades, a vision from the playoffs remains; it’s the image of thousands of Leafs fans gathered in Maple Leaf Square at the Air Canada Centre. In a city where hockey tickets are priced staggeringly above what the average fan can afford, it’s a great thing to see these people come together to watch the games on the giant screen there. Opened in 2010, Maple Leaf Square is like a setting for an urban tailgate party, and if the playoffs are any indication, is proving almost as coveted a place to be as inside the arena. It was Toronto firm, Kramer Design Associates (KDA) who conceived this. Responsible for all of the interior and exterior wayfinding on the property, they opted to install a giant media screen as part of the exterior glazing of the building.
“It creates a sense of community,” says Principal and Creative Director, Jeremy Kramer. “It started as a square, but we looked at how media architecture could enhance it, and create a unique gathering place.”
Working with building owners and developers, KDA creates special experiences around many of the city’s buildings, both new and old. It was Kramer himself who convinced RBC to include blue LED lighting on the exterior of their new building at Wellington and Simcoe – a brand colour reinforcement that in turn, helps beautify the downtown core. It was also Kramer who transformed the façade of 137 Yonge Street from a fairly forgettable modern wall, into a brilliantly coloured display, programmable with millions of colours or video content.
KDA is likely best known to us for the street furniture program they designed, currently being rolled out across Toronto for their client, Astral Media. Over a period of 20 years a vast collection of pieces will be installed across the city, including: 12,500 garbage and recycling receptacles, 6,000 transit shelters, 2,000 benches, 2,500 newspaper corrals and 2,000 bike racks, among other pieces – a staggering scale for the design influence of any one firm.
The challenges in designing one cohesive suite of furniture for the entire city were considerable. Weather requirements; the use of appropriate materials; a design story that would enhance our city; countless committees, boards, BIAs and citizens to satisfy; each step provided its own obstacles.
“The amount of space on Toronto sidewalks was among the greatest challenges,” says Kramer. “We don’t have the wide promenades that many other cities do.” As a result, each transit shelter is essentially a kit of modular parts that can fit together in 20-odd different ways, making them adaptable for different sites. It was important also to make them transparent, so the streetscape may be experienced through, rather than just around them. Further, all shelters are created with solar energy applications, freeing each and every one of them from the municipal power grid.
Among the next round of roll-outs is a cohesive program of tree grates, bollards and planting boxes. A series of 20 automated washrooms is also coming, with two already having been installed; one at the Harbourfront, and one in the Beach. These new structures contain self-cleaning and drying toilets, seats and floors, a feature that has been in Europe for 20 years. Already, the two that are built have become tourist attractions of their own.
KDA’s street furniture has received a lot of attention, both favourable and not so. Because the pieces are experienced (and scrutinized) up close—and with one cohesive look visible in every neighbourhood across the entire city—we likely feel more connected to how they should look than to the buildings that get built around us. We feel a sense of ownership over something so widespread and ultimately, that’s a good thing, regardless of how we feel about them.
Another prominent KDA project currently under construction is the new Front Street entranceway to the CN Tower and Ripley's Aquarium, expected to open this August. At the foot of John Street has long been a concrete walkway that led visitors toward the tower, yet felt like a service ramp to the Rogers Centre. KDA’s design will serve as a clear entrance to the attractions; its lights and media screen visible for blocks down Front Street, as well as from far up the budding John Street cultural corridor, right to the front door of the Grange behind the AGO.
As KDA's work spreads across the city, it becomes woven into our cultural fabric on many fronts. TIFF recently announced that their opening night gala this year will take place at Maple Leaf Square, beneath the giant screen. It’s another use for this new kind of place, and another opportunity for our cultural and design choices to bring us together, be it movie night, date night, or even an unpleasant hockey night.