The Beauty of the Toronto Transit System

Earlier this year The Guardian released a list of the world’s most beautiful metro stations – Museum Station was named on the list. The renovation of the station, which included totems and ornate moldings and pillars, rightfully deserved to be included.

CityNews Toronto decided to ask Torontonians what their most and least favourite stations in the city; the ensuing Twitter discussion gave a fascinating insight into what people like and dislike about the look of Toronto’s subway stations. What was interesting was a split in opinions – just as many loving the funky retro vibe of the older stations as those who liked the more contemporary examples.

Subway 1

Photo: Yonge Line, Dundas Station circa 1950’s – City of Toronto Archive. http://bit.ly/1P5WGxv

The Yonge Line was Canada’s first subway, opened on March 30, 1954. From there, the University extension was opened in 1963, then the Bloor-Danforth line was opened in 1966. As such, Toronto’s subway stations are steeped in 1950’s/1960’s minimalism – tile walls    , concrete floors reminiscent of those from a hospital or post-war schools, bold colours, fluorescent lights and that gorgeously distinctive font on station signs give the stations a great retro vibe. Every part of the stations, from their brick and glass clad street-level facades, to their underground corridors, allow – if only for a fleeting moment – timelessness, with a hint of retro kitsch.

Subway 2

Photo: Sherbourne Station, 1963 – City of Toronto Archives. http://bit.ly/1O2KOeU

The 1950’s/1960’s have never really gone out of fashion from a design standpoint – Toronto’s subway stations were built just before the imposing gaudiness of 1970’s design sensibilities, or the plastic sterility of the 1980’s, leaving the city with subway stations right out of the Mad Men era.

Looking at pictures of Toronto’s subways over the years we see fashions changing, we see the subway trains changing, we see the advertising changing, but the stations themselves stand almost defiantly against the passage of time, frozen in this perfect moment in design sensibilities for a city growing and progressing at the pace of Toronto – enduring decades of aesthetic ‘improvements’ which fell short of their mark, seemingly waiting for the city to recognize the refined elegance of the time in which the stations were first born.

Subway 3

Photo: Old Mill Station, 197. http://bit.ly/1VnHEbt

As new stations are proposed and designed, it is clear that a more modern aesthetic is being sought – and rightly so. However, one can’t help but look at the designs for stations on the Toronto – York Spadina subway extension and feel a pang of familiarity between the swooping, futuristic contours of the York University Station, or the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre Station, or the Highway 407 Station, and 1950’s/1960’s science fiction visualizations of ‘the future’.

Subway 4

Photo: King Station, 1982, Photo credits attached. http://bit.ly/1QLufDo

The Sheppard subway line, which opened in 2002, maintained the minimalist influence of the 1960’s station design sensibilities which are the hallmark of Toronto’s subway system. Linear and geometric tile patterns beneath the hypnotic symmetry of the slatted ceiling and stark, raw concrete walls make stations along the Sheppard line popular with Instagrammers across the city, even if they aren’t as popular with TTC riders.

It is reassuring to see that the design legacy of Toronto’s subways will continue in this fashion, but will embrace a more modern street-level aesthetic, as is illustrated by the mock-ups for the Toronto – York Spadina extension lines.

Toronto has come a long way since the 1950’s, but the subtle, refined beauty of our subways is a legacy worth preserving and nurturing as a part of our shared cultural identity as Torontonians.

Subway 5

Photo: Bessarion Station, circa 2014, was named one of Toronto’s least used subway stations in 2014. http://bit.ly/1j1cIgb