HE DECORATIVE FEATURES OF BUILDINGS are usually the result of an intentional design process that begins with the architect’s vision and develops through a myriad of choices about materials and construction. But sometimes serendipity enters the picture, offering surprising adornments that can yield rich decorative treasures.
As someone who teaches paleontology, I am used to looking at rocks. On my daily walk home from the Redpath Museum in Montreal, where I work, I began to notice that fossils were “hidden in plain view” in the construction materials of some iconic downtown buildings. I set out to discover as many as I could, and to bring to light this fascinating corner of intersection between the world of natural history and the history of the built world.
ECORATIVE ARCHES AND GATES in Canada, created over centuries, celebrate and commemorate significant people, events, resources, and spirit of place. A remarkable number of these structures still exist while others were temporary or have been demolished, usually in the name of progress. Arches and gates were created for occasions ranging from viceregal visits to commercial events, crafted by both sophisticated and folk artists. Many interpreted iconic, stereotypical Canadian images, some for patriotic or educational purposes, while others were purely celebratory in nature.
HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED by signs. My great uncle made neon signs. My grandfather was a sign painter. As a child, I recall visiting his Nanaimo sign workshop in the dirt-floored basement of his house, watching him hand-letter signs. As early as 1978, I photographed the then plentiful neon signage in Vancouver for a school design project. From the pharmacy signs in Barcelona and warning pictograms on signage in Australia, to the abandoned neon signs of the American Southwest and defunct business signs in shrinking towns and cities in the Northeast, this form of collecting has become an integral part of my travels. I also design signs for a living.
LL INTENTIONALLY FORMED OBJECTS in a city are designed. They exist because they serve a desired function. However, beauty is a function not everything gets to perform. In most cities, manhole covers fall into this category.
This past summer, for the second time since 2004, Vancouver held its Ironclad Art Competition. This competition, open to anyone who works, lives, or plays in Vancouver, was for a design or image to appear on one of two types of manhole covers: one for covers that are part of the city’s sewage system, and another for covers that are part of the storm water system.