Perhaps you drive a car that's one of the nearly 500,000 that struggles daily on Highway 401 atop Toronto? Or perhaps you've known your share of the torturous crawl of cottage-bound cars along Highway 400 during the weekend? Either way, if you're a long-distance driver, you know the sinking feeling of pulling into a skanky, artificially lit service centre where the washrooms are dirty and the food is as tedious as it is greasy.
Such is the punishment meted out for disciples of a gas-guzzling culture, as if Martin Luther had become high priest of our highways. For too long, service centres in Canada have become an evil accomplice to increasingly bad traffic. (You'll know what I mean if you're reading this while inching along the highway.)
But let's pull over for a minute: There's something that looks like architectural hope emerging on Ontario's superhighways.
ONroute service centres, designed by Quadrangle Architects Limited of Toronto and currently being rolled out on highways 401 and 400, are transforming the generic, forgettable designs of yesteryear with new, architecturally elevated interpretations of Muskoka lodges. By 2013, 20 new ONroute facilities will be scattered along the major motorways of Ontario. Seven have already been completed.
The ONroute I visited last week on the 401 near Trenton, 150 kilometres east of Toronto, is a beacon of Canadiana. It's designed, like the others, with dynamic rooflines lifted up to accommodate "great family rooms" inside.
And although it may be stuck next to gas pumps, in the middle of thousands of parking spaces, the front entrance feels like a well-appointed cottage or chalet. The generous roof canopy and outdoor trellis are lined with Douglas fir. There are cubes of stone next to walls of glass canted at an angle to allow for sheets of natural light while preventing heat sink in summer and glare in winter. Inside, the entrance walls are clad in Ontario-quarried limestone. Wood veneer is used on the dining chairs and garbage receptacles. Suddenly, exiting the highway comes with some updated aesthetic perks.
You may recall, not long ago, a highway landscape dominated by red arches and plastic-looking pitched roofs. With its new series of ONroute service centres, Ontario is attempting to rebrand as a quieter, woodsman version of itself, as if the awkward teenager of the Jetson Age had grown up and retired permanently to a life of elegant self-reflection on the shores of Lake Rosseau.
Bruce Mau Design is the company responsible for the highway signage and for graphics throughout the service centres. There are vaguely upbeat polka dots of information, but the green on the highway signage already looks tired. Within the tourism-information centres adjoining the fast-food joints are enticing videos of Ontario's landscape delights (though, at Trenton, the place for tourism brochures sat empty and the ticker tape news was two weeks old).
All of the centres offer water-saving toilets, highly efficient mechanical systems and durable materials, including the wood and the stone. Quadrangle principal Les Klein notes that all the buildings are designed to the international Wellington Standard to allow for extra-easy accessibility for any visitor, including those who might be in a wheelchair or visually impaired. The largest one, under construction near Woodstock, features an interior courtyard where children can play safely. The sustainable gestures are laudable, but it's easy to catch the unavoidable irony: The service centre sits within a vast sea of parking.
And alas, there is still no food justice to be had along the highway.
Besides the usual suspects - A&W, Pizza Pizza and Tim Hortons - the newly opened ONroute service centre on Highway 401 near Trenton offers the Cold Stone Creamery, which makes its delectable but heart-attack-inducing ice cream fresh every day. You wouldn't expect much more creativity from Maryland-based HMS Host Corporation, which formed a consortium called Host Kilmer Service Centres and signed a 50-year agreement with the province to operate the network of roadside stops. (The consortium's other partner, Ontario-based Kilmer Van Nostrand Co., is building the 20 facilities for a total of $300-million.)
Unless something radical happens to the list of food suppliers at the new centres, we can expect 50 years of highway food culture that belongs to the United States of Obesity. That's not only unforgivable, it's grossly out of date.
There's a deep café culture in Toronto, and a global smorgasbord of food being served across the province, but the marketers have decided we like our highway architecture warm and our food warmed over - and deep fried. At the Market convenience store, among trashy novels and overpriced apples, you're expected to find healthy hallelujah moments in the "tuna-salad kits" and single boiled eggs that look as appetizing as hospital gloves. My personal favourite is the plastic bag containing a "refrigerated deli pickle" in which half a dill pickle cut lengthwise rolled around in its own brine - surely not to eat, but, possibly, as an homage to the shark in a tank of formaldehyde by the artist Damien Hirst.
Once all 20 service centres are completed, around 2013 - there have been serious construction delays - the network is expected to generate sales revenue to the HKSC consortium of about $100-million annually. That represents several billion dollars of profit over the 50-year term of the agreement.
Underneath the clumsy lights that hang below the exposed ductwork, there's plenty of opportunity to warm up the interiors of ONroute even more.
The travelling public, treated for so long like second-class citizens, deserves not only delicious, freshly prepared food, but intimately scaled seating areas; fireplaces; the abundant use of plants; living walls; a serious planting of trees and shrubs as a defensive shield against the harsh highway environment; and the option of china dishes rather than throwaways for those who wish to stay for a coffee or a meal rather than eat on the run.
Important fact: HMS Host is owned by Milan-based Autogrill, whose rest stations in Italy located along the Autostrada offer excellent coffee served in china cups; salads and panini; even fresh-squeezed orange juice. My experience on the road leading from the coast to Florence has been delicious lattes served up fast in an animated, gleaming café ambience by waiters in white smocks.
An observation: The man sitting next to me dug with despair through his Mediterranean Greek salad. There were virtually no olives and tomatoes to be found. He returned the bowl of lettuce to the counter of the pizza joint and left. Framed against the big stone-and-wood embrace of the front entrance, he looked disappointed - if only by half.