Sound Barrier

A musical art piece approaches the delicate subject of suicide prevention with an affirmation of life.

The Bloor Street Viaduct is one of Toronto’s grandest civic structures and its leading place for suicide. Rising 140 feet above the Don Valley, which sweeps south toward Lake Ontario, the viaduct crosses ten lanes of highway, two sets of railroad tracks, the city’s primary power lines, a cycling path, and the lugubrious Don River itself. When commissioner of works R. C. Harris—Toronto’s own Robert Moses—built it in 1919, the visionary structure included provisions for a subway line, although nearly 50 years would pass before tracks were actually laid. An estimated four hundred and eighty people have voluntarily leapt to their death from the viaduct, putting it second after the Golden Gate Bridge as North America’s leading place for suicide.

So-called “suicide magnets” and the barriers built to hinder those drawn to them create a Pandora’s box: draw attention to them and more people flock there; ignore them and people continue to die. Yet as Isaac Sakinofsky, a suicidologist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, explains, barriers are surprisingly effective. “If you remove the means for suicide,” he says, “then those people who impulsively decide to take their lives don’t.”

In 1998, following several high-profile deaths, the city of Toronto announced a national design competition for a “safety barrier” that was to be a work of public art, but not explicitly a memorial. (In the delicate logic of suicide prevention, that would be self-defeating.) In Toronto, where civic projects are treated with a combination of Anglo understatement and a Soviet sense for aesthetics, the art component was a highly unusual step.

All of this made the winning scheme—by Dereck Revington, an architecture professor at the University of Waterloo—a surprising choice. His competition entry invoked Mozart requiems, the rhythms of rippling water, and Toronto’s mythology. It was also inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion, in which a group of nuns becomes disoriented and wanders out onto the half-finished Bloor Viaduct. When the wind sweeps one of the nuns over the edge, a daredevil steelworker named Temelcoff swings out and catches this “black-garbed bird.” Revington thought any barrier “ought to be done with the elegance and grace of Temelcoff’s gesture.”

For a while it might have seemed too graceful. City council balked at the expense of Revington’s complexly engineered and finely detailed structure, with its 1,500-foot-long truss supporting 10,000 rods that will produce sounds when the wind blows or when plucked by passersby. The barrier combines the delicacy of the Brooklyn Bridge’s latticework of cables with the not-quite-playful terror of a Richard Serra sculpture. Underfoot the bridge feels dynamic, even unstable—certainly a strange note for what is, after all, intended to keep the psychologically adrift on solid ground.

But Revington points out that this ambiguity is exactly what should be accomplished by spending $4 million on what could have been a chicken-wire fence. “It transforms the bridge from a place associated with death to a place associated with life,” he says. “It becomes a civic space.”

The families of the people who died there agree. “The bridge was a tombstone for a lot of people, and now it will be a statement on the value of life,” says Michael McCamus, who co-led the campaign for the barrier. Sakinofsky points out, “Wasn’t it Churchill who said that ‘without art there’d be no point in fighting the war’?”

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