Sailboats at Ontario Place - Wikipedia
02 . 22 . 2019

Ontario Place has considerable heritage value — and the province knows it

AUTHOR Shawn Micallef

It’s nice to see Toronto civil society all revved up and ready to defend something.

Such was the case on Tuesday evening when a few hundred people attended a meeting at Harbourfront Centre to discuss a future for Ontario Place that builds on its storied past rather than destroys it.

Organized jointly by the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and the Toronto Society of Architects, the discussion had a particular focus on the unique modern heritage found at the site.

To many visitor eyes, Ontario Place was allowed to deteriorate over the years and its heritage and cultural relevance went along with it. In fact, the site still has considerable worth in this regard and the provincial government knows it: in 2014 the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sport conducted a deeply researched heritage study of Ontario Place, declaring it a “cultural heritage landscape of provincial significance.”

The page with that statement and study was conspicuously removed from the ministry’s website in January when the Ford government announced it would release an “expression of interest” to redevelop the site (the page can still be viewed here at the Internet Archive.) It has been suggested that everything is on the table, including the beloved pods and Cinesphere.

Ontario Place was designed and built during a “frisky time in Canadian architecture” and an unusually ambitious period, said eminent Canadian architect and professor George Baird, one of the evening’s speakers. He pointed out that architect Eb Zeidler and his firm were closely following the sometimes-theoretical utopian and avant-garde movements of the day, and he thinks Ontario Place is one of the best physical representations of some of those ideas.

Baird went on to compare the pods and Cinesphere to buildings built in the “high tech” style such as the Lloyd’s of London building in the U.K., the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the HSBC building in Hong Kong. They reveal exposed pipes and internal structures as Ontario Place does, though ours was an earlier example. These are internationally celebrated buildings that helped make their architects famous, yet in Toronto we seem to take Ontario Place for granted.

Finding a new use for the pods has been a challenge but Baird compared them to Maple Leaf Gardens that sat empty for five years before the hybrid concept of putting a grocery store and Ryerson’s athletic centre into it materialized. “My plea is you can’t rush reuse propositions, you have to be patient.” The solution to saving Maple Leaf Gardens was “unforeseeable before but obvious afterwards,” he said, adding the same can be true for the Ontario Place pods.

Unlike the pods, the Cinesphere underwent a major restoration that was completed just as Ontario Place closed in 2012. Philip Hastings of Gow Hastings Architects discussed how his firm brought the original permanent IMAX theatre up to modern standards. “Without any major technical alterations it can still function as a state-of-the-art theatre,” he said. “If it can come back after 50 years, other structures can too.”

Organizers were also keen to point out that, when closed in 2012, Ontario Place was already coming back to life as a secret McGuinty government document revealed attendance was up 89 per cent in 2011 over 2010 levels and that revenue was growing and expected to break even by 2015.

Former Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation chief Carolyn King spoke of her work participating in the design of the Trillium Park and the William G. Davis Trail on the east side of the site, a $30-million project that included 1,200 new trees and 28,000 shrubs and perennials. Part of King’s contribution includes a “moccasin identifier” etched into stone. She reminded the crowd that not all heritage is “built” as people lived here much longer than the 200 years usually celebrated, and that Ontario Place represents an important connection to the water for Toronto.

Architect Michael McClelland pointed out that, along with Zeidler, the late landscape architect Michael Hough designed a carefully considered site, complete with microclimates and places to “get lost in” that also has considerable heritage value.

McClelland said that if we want to save Ontario Place we have to fix Exhibition Place too, “one of the most dreadfully managed places in the world.” Indeed, heritage buildings and monuments on the City of Toronto-owned and governed Ex grounds have been either torn down or treated badly over the years, and the acres of parking lots where nobody lives, adjacent to Ontario Place, has been a real impediment to making it a vibrant destination again.

Everyone agreed something needs to be done to create “Ontario Place 2.0,” but they also agreed destroying what’s there now would be a tragedy for this province and city. The evening was also a challenge to Ontario’s design and architecture community to come up with bold ideas for Ontario Place’s future.

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