Canadian Architect



Ontario's Highway Infrastructure Provides An Unexpected, Compelling and Dynamic Architectural Experience.

September 1, 2005
by Canadian Architect

Text & Photos Christine Leu

The body uses its senses to understand its surroundings. In the case of the automobile occupant, perception is based predominantly on sight. Occasionally, the smell of cows and skunks, or the bumps from potholes and debris may penetrate the sealed environment of the automobile. However, the highway user absorbs his environment by staring forward, hurtling 100 km/hour.

Few monuments manage to distinguish themselves to the highway audience. The dismal blights of billboards and large buildings litter its margins, and buildings face the highway perpendicularly such that they present a flat plane to the user–drab boxes with illuminated signage. These buildings are the architectural equivalent of a one-liner.

The highway presents a unique perspective from which to experience architecture, a stunning example of which capitalizes on the 401/410/403 interchange. The 400-series of King’s Highways are the pinnacle of the Ministry of Transportation’s highway system in Ontario. The 15 400-series highways are at least four lanes wide, divided, and dictate a speed limit of 100 km/hr. The 401 is the vital east/west artery of southern Ontario. The 410 is a north/ south link, which runs 13 km from the 401 to Brampton. The 403 is bounded by Mississauga to the east and Woodstock to the west. These highways represent the backbone of Ontario’s road infrastructure.

Highway interchanges inherently reflect the sinuous nature of vehicular movement. The series of massive concrete piers thud across the grassy brush between lanes and cars, and support the ramps overhead. The bands of concrete gracefully twist and turn to tie the three highways into a carefully orchestrated knot, elements which are visually experienced in a moving vehicle where the user’s viewpoint is constantly shifting. Driving through this stretch of colliding conduits contrasts with the typically linear highway experience. In this case, the joy is in driving towards the sky, in the blinding splashes of light between the shadows of ramps, and in watching the tops of tractor trailers zoom overhead. The result is a stunning architecture which plays with the sense of parallax, issuing a challenge to design with this moving audience in mind. Indeed, with clogged transportation corridors of thousands of vehicles, there may be no better audience.

Christine Leu lives and works as an intern architect in Toronto. An exhibit of her photography entitled Standing on the Side of the Road is on display until September 30th at the Academy of Spherical Arts in Toronto.

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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