Article by Matthew Kleywegt

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.

Derek Simons, one of the project coordinators for this competition and a member of the city’s art and culture council, explains that the idea for the competition originally came from the public works department: “Vancouver had a combined sewer/storm water system that would occasionally be overwhelmed during a heavy rain. This caused raw sewage to sometimes be discharged into local waters. In an ongoing effort, the City has been working on a separate storm water sewer system to keep this from happening. The public works department thought that an art competition to decorate the covers in the two different systems would help highlight this effort to the public.”

The City created a template for the manhole cover, and each design had to be made using the template. The other major design requirement was to incorporate the words “City of Vancouver” or “C of V” on the manhole cover. Along with these practical considerations, Simons describes the more ephemeral goals: “It had to evoke something about Vancouver or the sewage system. We were also looking for something young and contemporary.”

The contest was very well received by the residents of Vancouver. The more than 1,100 submissions were as diverse and interesting as the residents of the city. (The gallery of entries can be viewed on the Ironclad Art Competition Web site, They ranged from intricate, affecting murals of wilderness scenes, to the raw reative expression of a child with crayon.

Unfortunately, maintenance costs and practical considerations prevented any of the colour submissions from winning this competition. Simons tells me that cast iron is difficult to dye, and paint on a road surface is hard to maintain in the best of circumstances.

The jury, comprised of local artists, community activists, and a city manager, selected two winners: Nigel Dembicki for the storm water system and Andrew Dexel for the sanitary system. Dembicki is a Vancouver-based designer, artist, and student currently studying architecture in Denmark. As a member of studioCAMP, a design/build collective interested in human-scale spatial interventions, he has worked on several publicspace projects in the past. Dembicki took his design inspiration from a simple and elegant concept: “To me, water is a defining element of Vancouver that both imposes a physical definition to the shape of our city and is a constant ephemeral element of life in Vancouver. Sheets of clouds, drops of rain, and masses of water serve as a simple depiction of the cyclical omnipresence water has on the atmosphere, geography, and life within our city. The aim of my work is to provide a straightforward connection to passersby to highlight and identify the infrastructure that plays a part in this cycle.”

The other winner, Andrew Dexel, is a member of the Nlakapamux First Nation who fuses the traditional art of his people with urban graffiti. His work has been featured in exhibitions inVancouver, Toronto, Kamloops, Ottawa, Seattle and Honolulu. When I asked him how he chose to approach this art challenge, he told me that his objective was to create an image that would make people happy and remind them of the diversity of Vancouver: “I like to make something that is uplifting and positive. Lots of people really want to say something with their art. For me, the artwork speaks for itself and is there to be enjoyed.” His constraint was the circular shape of the manhole cover, and so, using West Coast formline style within this circular shape, he created a smiling face. “The covers will be around for a long long time. I just had my first son recently, and the design is like a sun, so it’s cool to create and leave something behind that’s kind of in honour of him,” Dexel explains.

The purpose of the Ironclad Art Competition was to remind the public of the impact their everyday actions have on the environment. The storm water system carries everything dumped on a driveway straight to the ocean.

More than simply highlighting an urban infrastructure project, the manhole cover art in Vancouver has something to say: that even a basic utility like a sewer is important enough to be thought about, highlighted, and made beautiful through decorative form.

Excerpted from Fall/Winter 2013 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Matthew Kleywegt is a freelance writer, living in Edmonton, with a love of well-crafted objects, arguments, and actions.

Images courtesy City of Vancouver

Winning design in the Sanitary Sewer category,
by Andrew Dexel

Winning design in the Storm Sewer category,
by Nigel Dembicki