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Bike fence.
Bike fence.

Exteriors

Don't fence me in ... unless it looks cool Add to ...

Is a fence something that keeps people out or in? Is it a utilitarian object, or something that expresses the creativity of the people behind it? Is a fence more than just a tangible thing used to draw property lines?

Christina Kotchemidova, an associate professor at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., states in an essay titled "The Culture of the Fence: Artifacts and Meanings" that the "history of civilization is closely tied with the history of the fence" and, further, it "played a role…in building the culture of the family."

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And mine is falling down, so what does that say about me?

Not much I guess. And with new neighbours on the way next month, I'm sure there'll be discussions about replacing that rickety old thing my old neighbour and I chose to ignore.

So, in good Architourist fashion, I went hunting for ideas. I started in my neighbourhood, Midland Park, a leafy, late-1950s enclave nested beside the Birkdale ravine in central Scarborough. Since it's a little more Leave it to Beaver than Brady Bunch here, I didn't expect to stumble upon a jumbly abstraction of Mondrian-type squares like I'd seen once in a DIY publication from the Brady era; the most interesting fences were those that only subtly broke away from the usual board-on-board with a lattice top.

Along Midland Avenue, there are a number of concrete fences, which I assume diminish traffic noise; a neighbour informed me these were the result of a resident-led campaign in the 1970s that wasn't entirely successful. I've always liked concrete's versatility, and had I been in the neighbourhood back then I would have contacted Estonian architect Uno Prii - known for his sculptural work with concrete - and asked him to come up with a mould much like the one he did for apartment building balconies at 411 Eglinton Ave. E. that feature teepees, sunbursts and warriors on horseback. However, I'd have asked for ground-hugging rooflines, atomic bursts (to represent the nuclear family) and a station wagon.

Also backing onto Midland, and far more interesting, was what a creative homeowner did to a standard fence with leftover paint: Each picket had been brushed with a different colour and then surrounded by some lush landscaping. It's quite a lovely break from the monotony.

Still, these were too conservative, so I took my search downtown. A mildly interesting one that gathered wild reeds in a frame caught my eye, as did another with crumbling cinderblocks tied together with a seemingly random criss-crossing of thin strips of wood. A welder must have been responsible for the nice geometric composition I found on Bathurst Street near Sneaky Dee's, but I also saw far too much chain-link, which has got to be the most inhospitable type of enclosure around. Not only does it suggest an auto-parts yard, I wouldn't want to incur the wrath of the Toronto Public Space Committee (actually, the TPSC are very nice people and their "De-Fence" campaign offers free removal of that "self-imposed rusty barrier between neighbours" at www.publicspace.ca/defence).

I found stacked stone and driftwood (which I associate more with suburbia than downtown), but where were the really creative ones? I remember reading about a guy in Arizona who'd built a fence out of old airplane wings, and while a quick search on the photo-sharing website Flickr didn't find him, it did find a fence made from old skis in Colorado, another from surfboards in California and one in New York made out of old doors.

Clearly these were people who understood the symbolic weight of fences; I pulled out the folded copy of Ms. Kotchemidova's essay and reread a few words for inspiration: "The appearance of the fence in human societies marked the transition from a pattern of looting nature to taking care of it."

Finally, a tip from an old friend of my wife's led me to a backyard near Queen and Niagara. Although hard to recognize because they'd been painted over, here were industrial refrigerator doors put to new life, their old badges declaring they were once proud Kelvinators and Moffats. While this would surely play to the postwar consumption angle in my backyard, perhaps it was also too post-apocalyptic Mad Max .

Another tip deposited me near King and Roncesvalles in front of a fence fabricated from old bicycle frames painted flat black. Fascinating, but too artsy.

I combed a few back alleys, but only found the kind of art that comes from a spray bomb. While some of it was quite beautiful, I ruled out this approach since my resident's association is having enough of a challenge with graffiti already.

So what to do? The fence, according Ms. Kotchemidova, "is an open declaration of intention. It says on the part of the occupant 'I am here and planning to stay.'" Well, not only do I plan to stay, I want to stay in my neighbour's good graces, too, so, boring as it is, we'll probably just copy the fence that was there.

Unless my new neighbour is an aeronautical engineer, welder or professional graffiti artist, that is …

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