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A Stairway to Nowhere, and Other Absurdly Joyful Public Art

Strange, impractical city installations are intriguing and fun. Here’s why we should celebrate them.

Harrison Mooney 6 Jun 2024The Tyee

Harrison Mooney is an award-winning author and journalist from Abbotsford, B.C. Mooney was recently awarded the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for his debut memoir, Invisible Boy.

Nearly 10 years after it was first envisioned, the stairway to nowhere at East Vancouver’s Hastings Park is under a month from completion. What a remarkable place to sit down this will be.

The interactive art installation is titled Home + Away, which is ironic, as the visitors’ section is long gone. Originally pitched as two sets of bleachers overlapping to form a V (with a tunnel slide nestled between them), the piece has been pared down enough to look less like an artistic statement and more like a sliver of old Empire Stadium grandstand that somebody’s grandparents failed to dismantle.

Don’t be fooled by its seeming simplicity. This is a costly piece of public art from award-winning American artists Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo, who go by the moniker Lead Pencil Studio. According to the City of Vancouver, Home + Away is Lead Pencil’s first Canadian commission, though the prestige inherent in that statement has diminished over time.

Mired in delays, the project has taken a decade to come to fruition. The City of Burnaby managed to purchase and put up a Lead Pencil piece of its own in the meantime.

The duo’s second Canadian commission, Old Column, a 25-foot, 1,300-pound metal sculpture that looks like an old Douglas fir had a kid with an IBM mainframe, was unveiled outside Metrotown’s Modello tower in 2019.

A large, wiry public art installation in the shape of a tree with one branch features small, bright green leaves.
Old Column, purchased by the City of Burnaby, stands outside a Metrotown tower. Photo courtesy of Lead Pencil Studio.

Their third, a small sculpture for Vancouver’s AbCellera Biologics, was mounted in the lobby of the company’s Yukon Street office late last year.

Locals may know of another Lead Pencil creation: Non-Sign II, the “ghost billboard” at the Peace Arch border crossing, a massive, twisted metal picture frame for open sky.

A large public art installation composed of dark wiry materials creates the shape of a staticky metal picture frame without a top. It stands against a grey sky.
People travelling in vehicles through the Peace Arch border crossing will be familiar with Non-Sign II, a public art installation visible immediately upon entering the United States. Photo courtesy of Lead Pencil Studio.

But that one is on the American side, so it doesn’t count.

Winners of the 2007-08 Rome Prize for Architecture from the American Academy in Rome, Lead Pencil likes to go big.

In 2019, they debuted Transforest in Seattle, another hybrid structure that resembles both an old-growth cedar and an electrical tower, and stands, at 110 feet, as the tallest piece of public art in the city.

“It’s taller than I thought it was going to be,” one resident told Seattle’s King 5 News.

This was, one imagines, the nicest thing the resident could say.

Transforest has been rather divisive. “There’s no way that sculpture is loved by anyone,” the Stranger wrote.

False. I love it. And I love the one that we’re getting.

A tall piece of public art depicts a metallic tree with three small branches near its top against a blue sky at twilight.
Transforest is the tallest piece of public art in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Lead Pencil Studio.

Embracing the strange

Home + Away evokes the shape of Lead Pencil’s 2003 piece Stairway, a 40-foot flight of stairs missing quite a few steps in the middle, and the scaffolding evokes Maryhill Double, a remarkable installation along Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge that stands as an exact spatial duplicate of the Maryhill Museum of Art across the river.

The design is meant to evoke the old grandstand, yes, but more thought went into this project than that.

It’s intended as a complement to the towering structures at Playland next door — especially the old, wooden roller-coaster — as well as a nod to cloud busters of yore, like the rickety, 50-metre ski jump inexplicably erected for a 1958 centenary event.

A black and white archival photo depicts a giant wooden ski jump over a sports field with grass and a running track around it.
A 50-metre ski jump was erected in Vancouver’s Hastings Park on the occasion of a 1958 centenary celebration. ‘It seems a marvel no one died,’ the CBC reported. Photo courtesy of Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.

Per the CBC:

The May 3, 1958, Centennial Ski Jumping Invitational featured a precariously tall and narrow tower of scaffolding and ice erected over the north end of the stadium. Looking at archive photos today, it seems a marvel no one died.

“I don’t think there’s a weirder event than this one,” said BC Sports Hall of Fame curator Jason Beck.

The weirdest event in the province’s history simply demands a weird monument. Don’t you agree?

A three-panel collection of black and white photos depicts, from left, journalists in suits and a camera person standing on the roof of a golf cart in a stadium; a tall narrow ski jump reaching up to the sky; and a view of the base of the jump under construction.
Vancouver’s May 1958 Centennial Ski Jumping Invitational featured a tower of scaffolding and ice at Hastings Park in Vancouver. Photos courtesy of Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.

Home + Away is part of what’s known as the Hastings Park/Pacific National Exhibition Master Plan, adopted by city council in 2010.

As we’ve established, nothing happens very quickly in Vancouver. This 14-year-old plan is still unfurling.

In 2012, landscape architects at Vancouver’s PFS Studio were commissioned to design a large public park on the southeast corner of the grounds.

The result was the Plateau Sports Park, which local kids later renamed Slidey Slides Park, as no one was using its Christian name anyhow.

This is in keeping with the East Van tradition of community members completely disregarding the official name of public parks in favour of simple colloquialisms that lay out, in layman’s terms, what you’ll find there. Grandview-Woodland’s Trout Lake Park, for instance, is actually called John Hendry Park. Mount Pleasant’s Dude Chilling Park is actually called Guelph Park.

Early on, the city explains, “the project team identified an opportunity for an artist to join the park’s design team to propose unique elements to be integrated into the design.”

Lead Pencil Studio was chosen to head up this part of the plan. They imagined a typical job; a dozen years later, they told The Tyee it’s been anything but.

“There wasn’t a sense that there was a fixed budget, if you can believe it,” said Mihalyo, “which is never the case.”

Han added that it was encouraging, at first, as the city seemed unusually open-minded. Too open-minded, it turned out. A few years later, Han and Mihalyo were told that the site had been changed, necessitating a redesign.

A little while later, Lead Pencil learned that “no fixed budget” really meant “no budget.” The project was paused while the city secured the funds. When the work resumed, Han and Mihalyo discovered their site had been taken.

“Our project was supposed to... get people from the parking lot on the piece, down the staircase to the field,” he said. “[We] came back five years later. Someone put a staircase there.”

Another redesign.

‘Hand-wringing about money being spent on creativity’

In 2020, concrete was finally poured for the footing and steps, as construction began. But that’s when the acts of God started, disrupting the global supply chain in unforeseen ways.

First, the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to material shortages, slowed down construction and shut down the border, preventing Mihalyo and Han from travelling to Vancouver during the process. Rather than building the elements in-house as planned, Lead Pencil was forced to enlist a Canadian contractor.

Then there was the Suez Canal blockage, which held up delivery of the specially made, super-translucent, woven wire mesh that allows one to see through the guardrail without falling through, 50 feet, to the ground.

“When it came time to order, it got stuck on a boat or was stuck in China for, like, three extra months,” said Mihalyo.

“They couldn’t move it because everything was sort of... constipated around the world because of that.”

“That happened twice.”

Meanwhile, the China-U.S. trade war intensified, causing fresh fiscal concerns. New tariffs on Chinese-made steel saw the cost of a shipping container increase by 500 per cent.

“Usually, you can get a container across the ocean for $4,000. It was $25,000,” said Mihalyo. “So we had to, like, just wait until the costs came down, because we didn’t have an extra $21,000 to throw at this.”

With the work originally projected to cost roughly $450,000, the city must now emphasize: we said “roughly.” The project comes in at some $200,000 over budget.

Now, I don’t care much about that. Whenever new public art drops, we hear the usual whinging about our tax dollars, like Vancouver’s public art program is brand new, or shrouded in secrecy. It isn’t.

Right now, for instance, the city is looking for installations in the River District town centre, and murals for billboards along the Arbutus Greenway. Regardless of what they commission, complaints about cost are a near certainty in Vancouver.

“There is a really hard-core scrutiny about the budget, which is really weird to us,” said Mihalyo. “I mean, we’ve seen it before, but up there, it’s just... a lot of hand-wringing about money being spent on creativity that benefits the public.”

As a broke artist, I can confirm. This city does not make it easy for us. It’s discouraging and, all things considered, a bit disingenuous.

If these expenditures seem like a waste of public funds, I turn your attention to the Vancouver Police Department budget. There’s always money in the banana stand.

We love to hate it. Why don’t we celebrate it?

It’s more than money. Vancouverites like to complain about public art, which is, after all, the easiest way to express an opinion about it.

Beloved now, the laughing men in English Bay and the Granville Island giants were first despised:

On the day when A-maze-ing Laughter was unveiled at English Bay for the 2005/7 Biennale, curator Barrie Mowatt was on site for eight hours responding to people’s comments. There wasn’t a single positive one....

It’s not an uncommon scenario. Likewise for Trans-Am Totem on Quebec Street, near, appropriately, the Viaducts. Or The Giants on the silos of the concrete plant on Granville Island. Or anywhere something new startles the nearby residents when it intrudes into their views and sensibilities.

A series of bronze sculptures of short-haired, shirtless men in different poses of laughter. One in the foreground holds his thumbs to his ears, palms open. Others are bent over laughing.
A-maze-ing Laughter in Vancouver’s English Bay. The bronze sculpture was designed by Yue Minjun for the Vancouver Biennale. Photo by Cameron Norman via Wikipedia, CC BY 2.0.

Views are of utmost concern in Vancouver, especially among property owners. That’s how we lost Boy Holding a Shark in False Creek, which drew a petition, signed by over 1,000 people, calling the sculpture “an unsightly imposition on the garden-like setting of this False Creek South neighbourhood.”

The same is true of the infamous upside-down church (Device to Root Out Evil), which was removed after much public outcry.

“Many residents have told us they don’t want to see it there,” park board vice-chair Ian Robertson told Rod Mickleburgh of the Globe and Mail in 2008, “and I think we have to respect their wishes.”

Admittedly, these pieces were all part of the Vancouver Biennale and therefore “temporary,” though I’d argue that doesn’t much matter if local landowners, who hold all the cards, decide otherwise.

Neither does it matter if something is meant to be permanent, like a whole bunch of trees from the seawall to Spanish Banks, which were poisoned or otherwise sabotaged by property owners. If it blocks a wealthy person’s view, we’re probably going to lose it.

The installations are intriguing!

Perhaps this is why I tend to celebrate every new piece that appears, against all odds.

Even the strangest, most impractical installations are intriguing to me, like Vancouver’s other stairway to nowhere in the Woodward’s building, Kingsway’s ladder to nowhere or Vancouver’s many stacks of random garbage, like the Trans Am Totem or Douglas Coupland’s tower of tires on Marine Drive.

Ditto for unsanctioned East Van installations, like the infamous Penis Satan or the giant spider in the Grandview Cut, both of which were later removed by the city, to my great dismay.

In fairness, Vancouver does occasionally let the unsanctioned stuff slide. Beyond the aforementioned Dude Chilling Park sign, on the opposite side of Empire Field you’ll find Leeside Skatepark, meticulously built by a bunch of skateboarders who dug out the 49-metre tunnel by hand and went on to beat the odds, persuading the city to let their work stand as a tribute to the late local artist Lee Matasi.

Hastings Park is full of fascinating lore like that. It’s the former home of Empire Stadium, which famously hosted Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the first Grey Cup game held west of Ontario. (Canadian Football League trivia is always pretty dreary. Wikipedia also notes that the 1966 Grey Cup game at Empire Stadium was the first championship game to feature “gooseneck” goalposts.)

Hastings was also the site of the Miracle Mile, the first time that two runners managed a four-minute mile in the same race.

Australia’s John Landy holds the dubious distinction of being the first man to accomplish the feat and still lose his event. A bronze statue depicting the dramatic moment he was passed by British rival Roger Bannister was placed in the park back in 2015.

Statues are all well and good, of course, but my preference will always be art you can sit on. This is why Home + Away is exciting to me.

A tall, narrow grandstand with a green awning and light at the top descends down a gentle grassy slope against a night sky.
It’s public art you can sit on! Photo courtesy of Lead Pencil Studio.

The 17-metre-high Lead Pencil sculpture is said to provide comfortable seating for over 40 people, and bird’s-eye views of the whole park.

According to the city, this peculiar grandstand “evokes the experience of the vertiginous heights of the earlier structures in the park and offers a new perspective on the surrounding mountains, encouraging us to pause, connect with each other, and enjoy the beauty of our city.”

Granted, the bleachers face Burnaby. But still!  [Tyee]

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