What's all that stuff on Sir Adam Beck's head?

Adam Beck cropped
CC BY 2.0 Sir Adam Beck with stuff on his head/ Lloyd Alter

It's an interesting art installation that brings some attention to an electrifying man.

Sir Adam Beck is in the news in Toronto these days, thanks to artist Tazu Nishi, who has installed a stack of stuff on top of the head of his monument. There's a vault, a desk, a big photocopier and a pile of books; the work is titled Life’s Little Worries of Sir Adam Beck.

For his Canadian premiere, Nishi will delicately balance a stack of objects upon the head of Sir Adam Beck at his eponymous memorial in downtown Toronto. Each of the objects has been chosen for its relevance to contemporary life in Toronto. Through this visually stunning and delightfully humorous intervention, Nishi aims to revivify viewers’ relationships with this often-overlooked monument. In the process, he will newly engage visitors with history, commemoration and community.

Beck full monumentLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The monument shouldn't be overlooked because it is pretty wonderful, an Art Deco representation of a dam with a heroic Adam Beck straddling the waters, designed by Emmanuel Hahn. I went down to have a look, surprised that anyone would allow Nishi to pile all this stuff on his head, but in fact it is really supported on a steel structure built behind the monument.

But it is also a good time to remember Adam Beck and what he did, which was build the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, with the mandate to deliver electricity "at cost" to industrial, retail and household customers. He built huge, efficient water powered generating facilities around the province and kept the rates low enough to drive private competitors out of business. His slogan was "dona naturae pro populo sunt" ("the gifts of nature are for the public"); the system he built made Ontario the economic powerhouse of Canada.

But this is where it gets even more interesting. Back in 1913 there wasn't a whole lot of demand for electricity, so Beck promoted the development of electric interurban railways, called 'radials', sort of a long-distance streetcar system. Trains would run from Fort Erie (across from Buffalo) to Toronto and up to Lake Simcoe to the north, and London, Ontario to the west. The project was put on hold during the First World War, after which the government he was part of lost.

The new premier, Ernest Drury, didn't like Beck and didn't like trains. According to Marc Mentzer, in a paper arguably titled Irrational optimism in a declining industry: Sir Adam Beck's Interurban Railway Proposal:

Even in 1919, Drury regarded the interurbans as obsolete, due to the growing popularity of automobile ownership. Drury says that although he was entitled to free railway travel as Premier, he preferred to drive from Barrie to Toronto, and he wondered how the new interurbans would ever show a profit when automobiles were so convenient.

Mentzer suggests that, had the interurbans been built, they would probably have failed by now. "Earlier in his career, Beck was ahead of his time, but the industry went through maturity and decline faster than Beck’s own thinking evolved, leaving him obsessed with pushing an obsolete technology on a hostile provincial government."

On the other hand, none of this was inevitable. In the UK the rail and streetcar lines led to significant development along their routes, concentrated at nodes instead of the diffuse development you get with cars. We could have had an entirely different pattern of development.

side of monumentLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But we still have much of his greatest legacy, clean hydro-electric power, as carved into the side of his memorial:

Erected by the Corporation of the City of Toronto & the Toronto Hydro Electric Commission in grateful commemoration of the public services of Sir Adam Beck, Kt. L.L.D. M.L.A., whose labours have ensured that the citizens of his native province under co-operative municipal ownership shall enjoy the benefits of low-cost electrical energy derived from water-power resources to serve the industrial and domestic needs of the Province of Ontario MCMXXXIV Queenston-Chippawa Niagara : Nipigon : Trent : Eugenia : Severn : Muskoka : Rideau : Nipissing

When you get past the pile of stuff on his head, there is a great story about an important visionary. If only his Conservative Party heirs were the same.

Beck standing tallLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

What's all that stuff on Sir Adam Beck's head?
It's an interesting art installation that brings some attention to an electrifying man.

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