Article by David Dennis

HITEHORSE TAKES CYCLING seriously, though not too seriously. Visitors to the storied capital of the Yukon are struck by the sight of whimsical bike racks on local themes: a white horse (created by sculptor Philippe LeBlonde) gracing City Hall, a coffee pot and cup in front of Main Street Bistro, and a robust plumbing contraption outside the Public Works Department. The diverse designs of Whitehorse bike racks, sited across the city’s downtown, inject sculpture into functional urban infrastructure, often with a note of humour. Wayne Tuck, the City Engineer, runs the project, which commissions site-specific bike racks as part of the Go-For-Green environmental grant program.

An ongoing problem is keeping cyclists in the driver’s eye. The Whitehorse bike racks do that. Prominently placed on sidewalks, the racks assert that bikes are an integral part of city living. Cyclists are not only vulnerable riders; when cyclists stop, their bikes are often subject to theft—whether in Whitehorse, Toronto, or New York City.

Cities across North America and around the world have tackled the secure-bike question with an array of solutions. Whitehorse, with its vigorous, rich, diverse public art and historic interpretation/commemoration program, has opted for a whimsical, unusual design solution. A good question is: are the Whitehorse bike racks art? American artist Richard Serra, known for his swooping, rusty, steel sculptures, made a vigorous argument that the architect Frank Gehry is not an artist because his shapely, titanium-clad forms are useful. Alexander Calder, sculptor of mobiles, made high art out of his own kitchen utensils—lovely, quirky, inventive, and useful spoons, toasters, light shades, and hotdog forks. So, for the Whitehorse bike racks, the answer to the art question is: sort of.

Toronto adopted the bike-ring design mounted to parking meters thirty years ago. The bike ring appeared at a time when the Kryptonite lock came into general use. The utilitarian cast aluminum ring has an official look to remind drivers of the City’s sanctioned cycling activity. The ring’s style is also reminis­cent of a manhole cover, overlaid with the aesthetic of a crescent wrench. New York City has just adopted its own bike-ring design, but also embraces a more artful approach styled by the likes of musician David Byrne (of the band Talking Heads fame), whose bike rack is fashioned in the shape of a car.

I’ll declare myself: I have travelled and worked as far north as Liard Hot Springs, on the Alaska Highway, 650 kilometres short of Whitehorse. My core design aesthetic is rooted in the industrial archaeological cast-off artifacts of these landscapes—trucks, sawmills, dredges, placer-mining gear. Thirty years ago, when I designed the City of Toronto’s first bike ring with Eric Pedersen, it took about 15 minutes. The new, more secure, full-collar Toronto bike ring, which I designed with John Prentice of Perth, Australia, three years ago, took two years from start to finish. These rings are cast in aluminum and planted, by the thousands, across 630 square kilometres of Toronto-area sidewalks.

I came at the bike-rack question from the official ring direction. Toronto’s population is one hundred times that of Whitehorse, hence my different take on the design. The bike ring was designed to blend in to the streetscape and reduce the sidewalk clutter of conventional racks.

Even in Toronto, though, there’s another bike-rack style that is somewhere in-between the more utilitarian bike ring and the artistic racks of Whitehorse. Local sculptors design bike racks that are flame-cut from 35-mm-thick steel plate. These sculptures are either left to rust or galvanized before being placed on the sidewalk. They are more exuberant, more artful, and ten times the price of the standard bike ring. They have a prominent place in Toronto neighbourhoods.

My lesson here is about the importance of artfulness in the making of everyday objects. “Life in the service of art” is a lovely Nietzschean idea. After thirty years of hindsight from the early cranky bike ring, Toronto’s new one is stronger, more shapely, more artful and consid­ered. If there’s a take-away, it’s that the exuber­ance and artfulness of the Whitehorse approach to urban infrastructure design can and should be applied to everyday tricky design problems. Our cities are better places as a result.

Excerpted from Fall/Winter 2013 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.
David Dennis is a Toronto-based architect, urban and industrial designer, and teacher. He has his own practice, David Dennis Design.

Photograph courtesy of City of Whitehorse
Bike rack in front of Whitehorse City Hall