Close-ups of four letter Ts from subway stations

Presentation to Toronto Preservation Board

On 2007.11.09, I made a presentation to the Toronto Preservation Board at the invitation of Adam Vaughan, who had read Ed Keenan’s article in Eye Weekly and requested that Ed and I appear. Also present was Brian O’Neill, deputy chief of engineering design at the TTC, whom I’d met several times before. (Susan Reed Tanaka couldn’t come.)

I was very pleased to address a receptive audience who actually have the power to do something. Amazingly, the meeting ran early, so my arriving just before our scheduled start time actually had caused people to wait. (D’oh.) And there were the usual problems with screen resolutions on the projector, a technology that dearly needs to be perfected.

However, they ate it up. I told them all the usual things (a longer version of my script is below), and made it clear to them that the subway actually has four or more forms – the Yonge line and its extension and the Bloor-Danforth line; the Scarborough RT; the Spadina line, all of which is typeset in Univers; the Sheppard line; and a few mutts like North York Centre and Downsview. There is no single subway æsthetic; there are several.

Vaughan said (all remarks paraphrased from notes) that retention of the TTC font is important to heritage conservation in the system. O’Neill almost apologetically spoke and mentioned that he took umbrage with my contention that nobody at the TTC loves the TTC. (OK! Let’s start the list at one!) He said I was right: A lot of things had not been done, and true enough, typographic preservation had fallen by the wayside.

What I’ve done and what Susan has done, he continued, is to say that identification of the system at platform level should use the original TTC font. (He agreed that “kerning” – actually letterspacing or tracking – is not right on a lot of new installations. He didn’t say Sheppard, but that’s where the problem is.) There’s a need to establish a proper standard.

(Now, let me mention here that the TTC already does have a “standard,” as Giambrone and Webster are always telling us, and that putting up the station name in the old font does nothing to preserve any other original signage, including the unique and priceless enamelled-steel signs. While appearing to back me up, O’Neill here is actually leaving lots of room to do exactly what Giambrone and Webster want to do: Ethnically cleanse the entire system into fake Helvetica and artificial stone, except for train-wall station designations.)

The Board had a discussion with (surprisingly young) staff, who said that anything that is unique or representative can be designated under the legislation. (Bingo!) Wellesley, Davisville, and Rosedale already are designated heritage properties, the latter two because of the open-cut architecture. (Nobody present knew why Wellesley was designated.) The type sandblasted into the walls, as a permanent feature, could be designated all by itself, but other signs would probably be considered chattel.

A member asked about Eglinton (the last stand of Vitrolite tiles). Could we start by designating just one station? Possibly, staff said, but that would need more research.

Vaughan called for a staff report that TTC could “cofund,” since it “has a lot more money running around it,” which gave O’Neill a nice chuckle. But in the immediate term, the important thing was to list the stations scheduled for redevelopment, he said. In the medium term, the Yonge-University and Bloor-Danforth lines. The Scarborough RT and the Spadina and Sheppard lines are separate issues. We need the TTC to enunciate how the history of its typography (he didn’t mention tiles) is going to be articulated in the future.

Vaughan cited a report from Tourism about Toronto’s inability to give tourists basic wayfinding information. The consistency they’re looking for is in the TTC’s architectural history.

Edith Geduld of the Board mentioned that, when she first moved to Toronto, she shepherded many guests from the U.S. and the U.K. around the subway and they’d never seen anything like it (in its glossy, pristine, consistent state at the time). It’s a brilliant idea (designating stations). I read through this entire report and was quite amazed.

Report ordered

The Board voted to receive a report on:

The motion carried unanimously. It will require discussions with the TTC, and Vaughan pretty much said he’d be talking to Giambrone personally.

Quite the victory, huh?

It is! However, I will be explaining to the Board and the TTC that there’s no way they’re gonna be able to spin this as a vindication of their current policy of isolating the old font to station identification, destroying every other sign in existence, and replacing the latter with fake Helvetica on plastic panels.

However, the practical benefit may be limited to moral suasion and forcing the TTC to jump through exactly one additional hoop before embarking on Giambrone’s cherished 35-year project to destroy the subway we have.

Original presentation

(I trimmed a lot of this to fit the allotted five-minute runtime. I removed the images here, since you’ve seen them already.)

What’s the problem?

TTC typography is a story about…

What we’ve got now is a completely unplanned mixture of signs in the true TTC typeface and in other fonts.

You can read about the way the TTC has ignored its own research or simply failed to do research on signage. But from a preservation standpoint, there are a couple of problems:

From what I can tell, there is no awareness at the TTC that they’ve got something special on their hands. All the things that make the subway special the TTC hates and wants to spend millions of dollars destroying.

Why is this happening? Well, there’s a lack of adult supervision. There is no chief designer at the TTC. The TTC is run by old guys and engineers and jumped-up motormen who think “design” is all about decoration. Plus these people just are not visually sophisticated and they cannot tell one font from another.

The destruction of the TTC’s heritage used to be a case of neglect. Now it’s a case of malign neglect. Under the guise of “modernization,” they intend to tear down and pulverize their heritage. Now, are you going to stand for it?

One thing you could do is declare the typography, signage, and wall and floor finishes of subway stations heritage properties. If that’s too hard, then just declare every subway station a heritage property. That way the TTC would at least have one more hoop to jump through before they jackhammer their heritage out of existence.

I have a lot of friends and supporters on this topic. Almost nobody disagrees with me that TTC’s heritage needs to be preserved, except of course the people at the TTC. I could really use your help.