Ontario Place revisited — with John Tory heading up a revitalization of the site, let’s walk around the site now and see what’s worth saving.

With the news that John Tory will be heading up the revitalization of Ontario Place, let’s revisit a piece I wrote 1.5 years ago, exploring the faded-glory of Ontario Place. Revitalize yes, but just save those hot-pants pods. 1973 vintage photo via the wonderful Not My Father’s Slides.

In one of the photo albums I grew up with, one that contained snapshots of my parents’ lives before I was born, there were a handful of pics taken in 1971 at Ontario Place, the year it opened. They’ve all got the golden tint that photos from that era have acquired — the troubles of the day seem far away as everything is muted by that gilded patina. One that always stood out is of a polyester-clad choir singing what I imagine is the old Expo ’67 Ontario anthem “A Place to Stand.” It all looked so optimistic and young, the brilliant future of Ontario and Canada.

The future is old now — nearly 40 years old — and it’s easy to drift into nostalgia about a place like Ontario Place, one of those civic spaces that are nostalgia machines. Everybody of a certain not-too-old age has a memory of either romping or working around here or heard stories passed down from a baby-boomer parent of working here in the early 1970s.

Yet as the Ontario government — it doesn’t seem like it, but this is a public space — is planning a major redevelopment of the area, this is no time for nostalgia. Some of the best buildings in Toronto are at risk of being swept away because the bureaucrats in charge have let Ontario Place slide into irrelevance. No offence to bureaucrats intended, but they may not be good at running things that are, well, supposed to be fun. Anybody who’s visited Ontario Place in the past decade or more knows it needs a major overhaul. It’s boring, neglected and tired. The future isn’t what it once was.

When it opened in 1971, it was Ontario’s $29 million answer to Montreal’s Expo ’67, if not in terms of civic pride then in dreams of waterfront and economic stimulus (a Toronto theme that never seems to go away). Designed by Toronto’s Eberhard Zeidler, it was constructed on fill dumped into Lake Ontario off the CNE shore, including three old lake freighters that were sunk and filled with sand to act as anchors for the landfill. The five pods that were suspended over the lake are like nothing else in the world, and the Cinesphere had the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre. For those who like to fret about Toronto’s world-class-ness, we’ve got some beauties right here. Once housing exhibits, the pods are only used for wedding and event rentals now. With floor-to-ceiling glass, they have some of the best views of Toronto, and few people get to see them.

Like Expo ’67, its opening brought with it a kind of Trudeaumaniacal excitement. If Expo let Canada be sexy, Ontario Place said this historically uptight province could be too. Ads from that first year proclaimed the glories of “The Girls of Ontario Place” claiming “There’s a lot to see at Ontario Place, and some of the easiest things on the eye are the attractive guides.” The Globe and Mail even did a photo spread of said girls, writing, “The 100 girls who are the hostesses at Ontario Place for the summer… have hot pants and pantsuits, a midi, a jacket and a stretchy yellow-and-white bubble blouse. Most popular are the hot pants. One girl commented ‘I’ve just got to shorten them.’”

Today, Ontario Place could use more hot pants. The uniforms (on both sexes) are frumpy and oversized now (though perhaps on account of the deep-fried foods that are served in huge portions — even the coffee bar is called a “fill station”). On a recent trip there, I spent over $15 just to enter the grounds for a walk that included few free attractions and a lot of either rundown or neglected buildings. On the east side, where the beloved children’s village once was, a dead, mostly paved space called “South Beach” is located near the waterslide park. The other older bits that have survived here and there are unloved, and the newer games and attractions seem temporary, as if part of the CNE.

Ontario Place was never a money-maker, and there are newspaper stories over the decades lamenting this. The only part that is a really profitable is the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, though it came at the cost of losing the Forum, an intimate outdoor concert venue in-the-round (the circular stage even rotated) with open seating under a tent-like roof and grassy areas. Baryshnikov danced here, many Torontonians saw their first symphony on that stage, and in 1980, after 1,000 fans of Teenage Head rioted for four hours when they were turned away from the sold-out show, “rock” concerts were banned for some time. The parklike forum has been replaced by high-security amphitheatre with gloved paramilitary-looking security people. The open stage over at Harbourfront has taken on the easy-come-easy-go role of the Forum, but without its bucolic, nearly forest setting.

When the Forum was torn down in 1994 and chainsaws were taken to over 400 mature trees, architect Zeidler told the Toronto Star, “Once the park image has gone… it’s Coney Island.” Zeidler’s original design was much more parklike than Expo ’67, as exhibits were a small part of the experience, as he said in 1974: “[It] wasn’t like Expo… the key was to create leisure time, space within an urban context and the spaces for exhibitions themselves become only one of many developments.” Last month, when talk of redevelopment went public, he said what happened to Ontario Place is like “a fantastic Jaguar, and you run it into a ditch.”

Ontario Place needs a near-complete rethink. We should bring back the park, make it free and turn it into a great Toronto public space. Build housing in and around it, so it’s a 24-hour neighbourhood, not just alive during the summer daylight hours. As dense communities are growing in nearby Liberty Village and Fort York, putting people in Ontario Place would nearly surround the CNE with life.

Yet whatever we do with this place, we must retain the hot-pants parts: the pods and sphere. Modernist buildings at this age are at greatest risk. Like awkward teenagers, they are unloved and are routinely disrespected, but parents don’t disown them; they know they’ll come around in a few years. Also at risk is a particular Toronto look that Zeidler gave us at Ontario Place and at his Eaton Centre, itself about to get a $120-million renovation which will likely remove many of the 1970s “futuristic” Space Shuttle–era details. Because of the age of both these places, and their connections to fun times, it’s easy to dismiss our built heritage as nostalgia.

But as Jane Jacobs said, new ideas need old buildings, and these buildings are now old, just like now-loved Victorian architecture was when she wrote those words. It’s time to do new things with these fine buildings.

6 comments

  1. I hope they keep the Cinesphere; an earlier plan called for it’s destruction.

  2. I think Shawn is one of the most articulate advocates for the preservation of Toronto’s modernist architecture today. I wonder if one day, much of what has been renovated out of the Eaton Centre, for example, will one day be restored, much like many of the old Victorian buildings are today. It’s probably the wrong time to even suggest such a thing, given all the money poured into the current renovation. I just think repeating the same destructive tendencies that caused Toronto to lose a good portion of its Victorian architecture will ultimately only deprive the city of any of its architectural diversity. Hopefully this revitalization will inspire some much needed forward-thinking.

  3. A couple notes from my experience as an Ontario Place employee in the summers of the late ’90′s. 

    First, while it’s true that the Molson Amphitheatre is the only profitable thing on the Ontario Place site, it must be noted that the Amphitheatre is not actually part of the park. In a horribly bad decision, the land on which the Forum was located was sold entirely to the Amphitheatre’s original developer (whose name eludes me). So, not only did Ontario Place lose it’s main concert venue, it also lost years of recurring revenues from the lease of the land.

    Second, in 1998 or ’99 the park gutted the park’s focus on food from various cultures and sold the food service contract to Cara Foods. Gone were the family businesses and in came Pizza Pizza, Second Cup, Tim Hortons and Swiss Chalet. Whatever the future of the park, it really must involve independent food vendors. 

    I could go on and on. I love Ontario Place. It’s the place where I started my career in the entertainment business, it’s where I spent my first summers away from home when I moved to Toronto for college and it’s where I met some of my best friends, future roommates, etc, etc…

    My cynical side says that John Tory and his gang will ruin the park. Man, do I hope I’m wrong. 

  4. Thanks TD. Since I wrote this piece the Eaton Centre has been finished. I still lament the loss of the original railings, and would rather they have been saved, but they did a pretty good job with the renovation/update. The eaton centre’s eatoncentreness is still there, though missing some bits.

  5. Helluva nice piece, Shawn. It stands up well. Though I think (and hope) that, in today’s climate, the pods will remain safe.

  6. Shawn, you are absolutely right about the importance of preserving Toronto’s modernist architecture. I am annoyed to no end that preservationists go on and on about Victorian architecture — yet they tend to be silent when avant-garde buildings are under threat. Even Open Doors puts far too much emphasis on 19th century Toronto architecture, most of which is derivative and mediocre. Look in the textbooks. You will find Ontario Place there, along with (new) City Hall. What you won’t find much of are all those backwards-looking neo-this, neo-that Victorian monstrosities.  

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