It has been a tough year and a half for the workers and patients who fill the hospitals in Toronto's Discovery District, but a new installation along University Avenue hopes to bring some light and cheer to those who regularly pass by the broad boulevard. A new installation entitled 'Radiant Journey' has been constructed along the median of University between Elm Street and Queen's Park Circle, and features unique light fixtures and dramatic lighting that create an intriguing visual experience along the avenue.

Rendering of the Radiant Journey installation showing full extent, image courtesy of The Friends of University Avenue.

Spearheaded by The Friends of University Avenue, the installation is the brainchild of Christine Ralphs, founder of the organization, who in 2017 embarked on an ambitious campaign to illuminate the boulevard through an initiative named "Reimagining University Avenue." Ralphs has been a frequent visitor and patient in the area over the past decade, and described her experience of the street as stepping into a 'black hole.' Inspired by the diversity of people that she saw in the hospitals, which she called a "microcosm of our country," she sought to "light the darkness" along University to bring hope and joy to its many users. The project took on new meaning with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and became a way to honour the resiliency and hard work of the hospitals' frontline workers.

Radiant Journey was officially illuminated and celebrated at an opening ceremony held on the front lawn of SickKids Hospital on Tuesday evening. Councillors Joe Cressy and Mike Layton spoke at the event, while Mayor John Tory provided a recorded message offering his praise and support of the project.

Councillors Joe Cressy and Mike Layton (front row, centre left) along with members of The Friends of University Avenue and the project team at the opening ceremony, image by Julian Mirabelli.

The project is designed by a multidisciplinary team led by lighting designers Mulvey & Banani Lighting and artists Studio F Minus. The installation is comprised of two main components: a series of floodlights that illuminate each tree along the median, and the groups of reed-like light fixtures that illuminate with wave patterns, themselves a work of public art entitled Lightwave.

Radiant Journey at night, image by Julian Mirabelli.

The reed-shaped light fixtures of Lightwave are inspired by natural forms, which help to make them structurally efficient as well as aesthetically pleasing. Paul Boken, Vice President at Mulvey & Banani Lighting, and Brad Hindson, Principle Partner at Studio F Minus, explained that they wanted to create fixtures that were beautiful during both the day and night, contrary to many lighting designs out there that are eyesores during the day when they are not needed. The reeds are placed in groups in a series of undulating waves that stretch along the University median, and appear as elegant structures in the daytime but which spring to life after dark.

Radiant Journey during the daytime, image by Julian Mirabelli.

The reeds are illuminated by an animation that appears as randomized waves which flow along the reeds up the avenue. These waves, however, are not entirely random; they in fact respond to sound. The lights displayed on opening night were programmed to choreograph with music that was playing in the background, but Boken and Hindson explained that the lights can be programmed to respond to any sound they wish. They had thrown around ideas of different playlists of music to use, or of simply using the surrounding street and traffic noise. The idea is to create an organic animation on the reeds that does not create a predictable pattern, ensuring that the experience will be different each time someone passes by them.

A portion of Lightwave, image by Julian Mirabelli.

A total of 25,000 LED lights now illuminate the avenue, and the permanent installation can be seen at any time of day throughout the year (though it might be best to go after dark to get the full effect). Thanks to Christine Ralphs and The Friends of University Avenue, Toronto's main stretch of hospitals and research centres just got a whole lot prettier.

A portion of Lightwave, image by Julian Mirabelli.

This installation is the first phase of the Reimagining University Avenue initiative, and Ralphs and The Friends of University Avenue have more plans in the works to continue beautifying the major artery. The second phase, while not quite yet fully defined, is described as a "curated program of public art", and is not scheduled to begin until 2022 or later.

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