Toronto’s New Arrival

A massive Richard Serra sculpture was recently installed in the new airport wing—before the walls went up.

Forget the Mountie. Put away the Eskimo carving. Please get rid of the beaver and all those other Canadian clichés. Starting in February 2007, the first thing foreign travelers arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport will see will be a sculpture by American artist Richard Serra.

Given Serra’s taste for the supersized, it’s only fitting that the work is big enough to walk through and even to create its own echo. It’s so big in fact that it had to be installed before the terminal walls and roof could be constructed. Consisting of four huge steel fins—each one delicately curved, torqued, and coated in black rust inhibitor—Tilted Spheres (2002-04) is 39 feet long by 14 feet high.

Since the $4.4 billion Pearson Airport expansion began in the late 1990s, art has been a major part of the program. The idea was to use artworks as place markers, or internal landmarks. The new facility—designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Moshe Safdie and Associates, and Adamson Associates—already features offerings by Sol LeWitt, Jonathan Borofsky, and Spaniard Jaume Plensa, among others. Although their contributions enrich what is usually a tedious and tiresome hurry-up-and-wait kind of experience, none approaches the Serra sculpture in size and prominence. For now, however, Tilted Spheres is wrapped in plastic while the terminal is being finished around it; until the roof was completed late last year the piece sat forlornly by itself, exposed to the elements.

Though Serra’s work comes closer than most to straddling the gap between art and architecture, he has made it clear that he believes the two are quite different creatures. “I’ve always thought that art was nonfunctional and useless,” Serra once said. “Architecture serves needs that are specifically functional and useful.” Don’t look now, Richard, but your piece will have a purpose. It will serve as an icon of twenty-first-century Canada, a country always anxious to redefine itself and desperate to be seen as more worldly and sophisticated. “We wanted to make a bold statement that Toronto is a world-class city,” Safdie says. “Serra’s piece gives a specific place a specific character. It will be a major part of the arrival experience.”

It remains to be seen what kind of an impact Tilted Spheres will have. But even now wandering through its enclosed yet reverberating spaces evokes an unexpectedly powerful response. In the midst of all the noise and confusion, one is suddenly alone with the sound of one’s own thoughts. Then, as quickly as it started, it’s over. Welcome to Canada!

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