End of the Road

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”, wrote the American poet Robert Frost, “that wants it down.” And while Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway is perhaps not precisely a wall, it has been widely seen, over the years, at least as an impediment, an artificially imposed boundary separating the city from its own lakeshore.

After years of expensive but fruitless, stop-gap maintenance, a huge section of the freeway–the Gardiner East extension (intended as the first stage of the aborted Scarborough Expressway) from the Don Valley Parkway to the Leslie Street ramp–is being subjected to $38 million worth of dismantling.

“It was an overbuilt, inelegant structure and it had to go,” says Toronto-based photographer Peter MacCallum, who began in 1997 to photograph the many attempts to restore the elevated freeway (see “Concrete Poetry,” CA, May 2000). “It comes from one of the periods in which we built big,” notes MacCallum, “a time when, for better or worse, we had a sort of united vision–of the kind you couldn’t find today.”

Aside from certain commercial assignments, MacCallum has not worked, until now, in colour. He chose to employ colour here, he says, because “colour connotes the present, and this was a project about our present needs.” Working high up on the skeletal bones of the deconstructed highway, using a hand-held camera (the seismic shaking precluded the use of a tripod), which–when taking a dramatic photo like Bringing Down a Bent at Leslie Street–he had to clap into a plastic bag against the billows of dust, MacCallum, who claims he wouldn’t risk his life for a photograph, nevertheless got so close to the crumbling behemoth you can almost feel the tremors of its demise.

“I just see it as a big object that is being knocked down”, says MacCallum, “and I’m interested in the process. I’m creating a visual record–not an engineering record.” Nor, he says, a social record. Though that is one thing his project will become. The photographs are also, of course, works of art. MacCallum has an uncanny way of investing his subject with a kind of insistent emotional force. Take Leslie Street Ramp Under Demolition: has any structure ever looked so abject–or so terminal?

Gary Michael Dault writes on art and architecture for The Globe and Mail.