In the Limelight: Limelight Bandshell, Toronto, Ontario

Tucked behind a wall of apartment towers north of downtown Toronto, Lee Lifeson Art Park is a bustling place on a warm Friday morning. A runner stretches his legs, a maintenance crew buzzes down long grasses, teenagers gather around a bench, a man in a tracksuit performs a slow-motion tai-chi walk down a path.

Paul Raff Studio.
The Limelight bandshell is designed to provide natural amplification, and is clad with glass mosaic tiles. A park pavilion by Forrec frames a view to the stage. Photo by Jack Landau.

In the centre of the park, an elderly Asian man sits on a fold-out chair on the wooden deck in front of Paul Raff’s Limelight bandshell. He plays the erdu—a stringed instrument with a small sound box and long neck that makes a singing sound like a high-pitched violin. It isn’t that loud, but the bandshell provides enough amplification to hear the melodic tunes above the whirr of the weed whackers.

Lee Lifeson Art Park is named after bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, who both grew up in the neighbourhood and went on to found the rock band Rush, with drummer Neil Peart. Just as the band created lush sound from just three instruments, Raff aimed to create a complex form using a single material.

The form began as a parabolic cone, which was then splayed open to send sound waves across the amphitheatre. The resemblance to a seashell emerged coincidentally, says Raff. Black glass mosaic tiles make the bandshell a mute backdrop for performances, but also give the structure a sparkling quality reminiscent of a disco ball.

Raff brought his experience in both art and architecture to the process of creating Limelight. The work was initially designed digitally, and then a full-scale model was sculpted from industrial plasticine, normally used for modeling automobiles. Further adjustments and refinements were made to the physical model, which was then digitally scanned for fabrication.

Originally, Raff planned to create the artwork with tiles set on concrete, but for ease of fabrication, the final form was constructed with a steel frame and high-density foam. A trained sculptor was brought in to help manage the layout of tiles on the irregular curves and ridges of the surface.

While Raff was originally commissioned to produce a stand-alone artwork, he ended up working closely with the others involved with the park, particularly landscape architecture firm The Planning Partnership and architect Tim Scott of Forrec. Based on the emerging park layout, The Planning Partnership decided to create an amphitheatre centred on the bandshell, while Scott set up his public washroom pavilion at the top of the performance area, forming a gateway that frames a view of the sculptural piece.

The amphitheatre can be booked for formal events, but the designers wanted to create a space that also invites spontaneous performances—whether by teenagers from the local arts-focused high school, or neighbourhood denizens like this morning’s musician. “All the world’s indeed a stage / And we are merely players,” goes Rush’s song “Limelight,” from which the pavilion gets its name. And indeed, it’s the perfect spot for watching the theatre of the world go by.

Photo by Jack Landau.