12 years after opening a suicide barrier spanning
Toronto’s Don Valley
is illuminated with a rainbow of colour

For walkers, cyclists and drivers on Toronto’s Prince Edward Viaduct at dusk, the only colour comes from the pink-streaked western sky. Then, 25 minutes after sundown, a score of lights appears at the top of the viaduct’s suicide barrier, bathing the steel strings that rise from the bridge, the stony balustrade and the sidewalk in mauves, blues, oranges, pinks and reds. Gradually the whole bridge is illuminated, but fitfully and unpredictably: the colours change, splashing over the strings, retreating, returning to ripple in another place. It’s as if a celestial harpist is meditatively playing a huge instrument, thinking as he goes about the location and the nature of the next subtle effect. 

The Luminous Veil, as the suicide prevention barrier is called, inspires metaphors. Its designer, Dereck Revington, refers to it as a painting, a musical instrument, an orchestra. Those are not obvious images for a suicide barrier, but there is nothing obvious about Revington or his work. Beyond its function, he wanted to create a piece of public art that expressed healing and joy as well as mourning. The sources he relied on for his soaring design include poetry, novels (Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion), consultations with Toronto’s schizophrenic community and a numerical system called the Sigma Series that creates the rhythmic interplay between the inner and outer lines of the strings. Something so freighted with intentions and influences could easily have become unwieldy, but Revington absorbed and melded them into a resonant but infinitely nuanced whole.      

When the Luminous Veil opened in 2003, it was not luminous. Revington quotes the novelist Milan Kundera: “From the sketch to the work, one travels on one’s knees.” For this project, Revington has been on his knees since 1998, when the viaduct was the second-most popular suicide destination in North America, after San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
In that year, after 400 suicides, the City of Toronto announced a national design competition for a barrier. Revington’s winning entry included LED lights across the top, as well as on the undercarriage that supports the subway as it crosses the viaduct. But the barrier met with fierce opposition, often centred around its cost, and the lights came off the table early.

They stayed off the table until 2007, when Jennifer Jones, a dance teacher and member of the Danforth Business Improvement Association, saw the promise of Toronto’s only lit sculpture and initiated talks with the city. This time, things went more smoothly. As Revington says, “People can embrace the joy of moving light more than what frightens them.”

Even so, lighting the Veil took another eight years for Revington and his team, including 18 months working on the code that underlies the moving lights. It’s a dauntingly complex, dynamic system that changes daily according to the season, temperature, and direction and velocity of the wind. On July 4, 2015, at the Pan/ParaPan American Games, a ribbon of 35,000 LED lights travelled the bridge’s 450 metres, and the Luminous Veil finally lived up to its name.

The $2.8 million spent for lighting didn’t stretch to the undercarriage, so the Veil remains a work in progress. Revington says of his creation, “It’s not what it means, but what it is.” Hinting at sorrow and healing but ultimately mysterious, the Veil is probably something different for each viewer. But it’s also communal, because every night between sundown and sunrise something happens on the viaduct that is unique in Toronto and unique to that night.   

Katherine Ashenburg is a Toronto-based writer.

Canadian Architect: February 9, 2016