25in25: A Public Art Retrospective – Kingsway Luminaires



Kingsway is Vancouver’s oldest thoroughfare. Before European contact, Kingsway was a Salish subsistence trail that stretched from what is now New Westminster to what was then a creek at 7th and Main. As the road widened, so too did its meanings. Kingsway has been many things over the years—a military endeavour, a commuter route, an automotive strip mall, a multicultural neighbourhood and, most undeservedly, a metaphor for what some find crass and unattractive about our modern gridded city.

"Kingsway Luminaires", 2009. Photo: Scott Massey

“Kingsway Luminaires”, 2009. Photo: Scott Massey

David MacWilliam addresses time, space and locus in Kingsway Luminaires, a serial work that begins with six cast iron poles situated at the centre of two median strips—three poles on one side of Knight Street, three on the other. Atop each pole sits a lamp of the artist’s design, an asymmetrical form placed at sixty-degree turns from one pole to the next. The effect of this curling form, and its circular placement, is evocative of an era when street lights were gas-powered, their flame shape susceptible to the natural elements but also to the system by which its energy was delivered. It also brings to mind the soft ice-milk cones served at the Collingwood Dairy Queen (or the ghouls in the Ghostbusters DVD available at the Kensington branch of the Vancouver Public Library). During daylight hours, the lamps appear opaque. However, as the sun sets, colours emerge, turning these white acrylic forms into homes for a series of six randomly programmed shades that shift subtly over a two-hour period, giving the appearance of lamp-to-lamp travel. But these are not the colours of commercial signage, nor could they be confused with the red, green and yellow of traffic control—these are tertiary colours, with their own agenda.

Just as street lights are there to show us where we are going, MacWilliam’s lamps remind us of where we are. For the driver this means a break in the daily commute, where the forgettable (a familiar building, sign or tree) gives way to an ongoing chorus of illuminated variations. For residents of Kensington-Cedar Cottage, the lamps stand in contrast to the Victorian-style light standards installed in 2004 at the request of a business association eager to make the area more attractive—yet in doing so, inadvertently identified it with a long-lost monoculture, a Dickensian world of red brick schoolhouses and British-picked street names that loom like sentries at the corners of this epic eight mile road.

The brilliance of Kingsway Luminaires shows us that identity (who we are in space and time) is not a static thing but something mutable, open to new configurations, new possibilities— be that the launch of a Vietnamese restaurant or the passage from stop to go. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, “Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that is a composition.” In other words, it is not elements that change over time but their relationship to one another. Kingsway Luminaires marks the beginning of our recognition of these relationships.

By Michael Turner – Turner is a Vancouver-based writer of fiction, criticism and song.

Location Map | City of Vancouver Public Art Program – Kingsway Luminaires, 2009 by David MacWilliam

Location Map | City of Vancouver Public Art Program – Kingsway Luminaires, 2009 by David MacWilliam

Kingsway Luminaires was commissioned by the City of Vancouver through its Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Program as part of Mapping and Marking: Artist Initiated Public Art Projects for Vancouver 2010.



Portrait of the Artist. David MacWilliam. Photo by Barbara Cole

Portrait of the Artist. David MacWilliam. Photo by Barbara Cole

David MacWilliam has been active in the Vancouver art community for three decades as an artist, teacher and administrator. He is currently an associate professor at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. From 2004 to 2013 he was Dean of the Faculty of Visual Art and Material Practice at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

Consistent in MacWilliam’s art practice is his interest in colour, form and beauty. His finished works are the result of a highly refined process of consideration: he works and re-works how one form might sit in relation to another, how one colour offsets the next, how the speed of a curve can define the gestalt of a shape.

MacWilliam moves fluidly between the disciplines of painting, photography and sculpture. His current research focuses on observable, real-time coloured light events and environments in public settings.

Recent exhibitions include The Geometry of Knowing, Audain Gallery, SFU (2015),  Artspeak, Vancouver (2014), and Winchester Galleries, Victoria (2013).


Culture - Public Art - 25th Anniversary - 25in25 series - logo - footer - png

The City of Vancouver’s Public Art Program celebrates 25 years of creating extraordinary artworks for public spaces. Every two weeks during 2016 we’ll share the story of a unique artwork created through the program. Over 260 pieces have been commissioned since 1991 through civic initiatives, community grants or private sector rezoning requirements. These are only a few of the key pieces that have helped to define Vancouver as a unique place and a world-class city for public art!




2 thoughts on “25in25: A Public Art Retrospective – Kingsway Luminaires

    • Thanks for keeping your eye on this artwork Victoria!

      We are upgrading the Luminaires, which takes some electrical redesign – hence the long period without being lit. We hope to get them up and running again before the dark days of winter!


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