Designed as an inclusive space for public entertainment, education, culture and recreation, Ontario Place is an internationally renowned, urban waterfront park in Toronto. With its integrated environment of parkland, lagoons and megastructures, Ontario Place crystallized avant-garde ideas in architecture and urbanism of the 1960s. Partially closed since 2012, the entire park will soon be the site of a major rehabilitation project. In this context, it has recently been officially recognized as a cultural heritage landscape of provincial significance.
Showcasing the Province
Completed in 1971, the ensemble of architecture, engineering, landscape and exhibition formed a singular cultural landscape that materialized the architectural ideas of the time, including the diverse influences of Archigram, the Metabolists, Pop Art and Expo 67.
A considerable engineering feat, Ontario Place began with the creation of three man-made islands that reconnected Toronto with Lake Ontario. The park-like landscape was designed by one of Canada’s most notable landscape architects, Michael Hough (pronounced “huff”). The architecture, designed by Royal Architectural Institute of Canada gold medalist Eberhard Zeidler, was composed mainly of five interconnected mast-hung pavilions and a triodetic dome that housed the world’s first permanent IMAX cinema, the Cinesphere. Working in collaboration with the architects and landscape architects, Eric Macmillan and others designed exhibits on the culture, people and natural resources of the province.
The result was a totally integrated environment that included the principle structures (including a network composed of the entry plaza, bridges, and walkways), and the crystalline clusters of shops and restaurants, all set within within a naturalized landscape of canals and lagoons.
Context and Reception
As C.W. Thomsen observed, “Many sources have flowed into the technical image of the five modular steel pods which form the central image of Ontario Place: the bold utopias of Archigram, Expo ’67 at Montreal, Japanese and American modular designs, science-fiction motifs speculating on extraterrestrial space age architecture, deep sea oil rigs, etc.”1 We also see the influence of Constant’s New Babylon and Yona Friedman’s Ville Spatiale (Spatial City), visionary projects of mast-hung structures hovering over European cities. These were the visions of the 1960s, the expressions of an emerging international vision. In many ways, this vision materialized at Ontario Place.
From the outset, the image of Ontario Place captivated architects, urbanists and academics. In 1969, the project garnered a Canadian Architect Award of Excellence (for projects in the design stage).2 Aspects of the project were published in leading international journals such as Architecture d’Aujourdhui, Architectural Design, Architectural Review, Deutsche Bauzeitung, Domus, Landscape Architecture, and many others.
Evolution and Advocacy
In the decades following the opening of Ontario Place, its cultural landscape evolved incrementally as the Ontario Place Corporation sought new ways to attract visitors. The park expanded, new attractions were added, older ones were replaced.
The heritage conservation movement in Canada was also evolving. In 1994, Docomomo Canada-Ontario was formed by a group wanting to connect to the growing international organization and to build upon the work of the Bureau of Architecture and Urbanism, specifically the exhibit and publication of “Toronto Modern.”3 One of the first activities of the new working-party was to submit 14 sites to the International Register. Selected to demonstrate the diversity of the modern movement in Ontario, the sites ranged from grain elevators of the early 20th century to urban infill housing from the 1970s. Although scholarship of the architecture of the late modern movement in Canada was still in its infancy, Ontario Place was among the 14 sites submitted.
Shortly thereafter, Ontario Place was to suffer its most controversial alteration. The Corporation proposed demolition of the Forum, a cherished outdoor performance venue with a rotating stage and hyperbolic paraboloid roof. Along with a community of musicians, Docomomo Canada-Ontario advocated unsuccessfully for the retention of the Forum as a character-defining element of the park. In order to double the seating capacity, the intimate performance venue was demolished in 1994/95 and replaced by the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre.
Perhaps awakened by this turn of events to the quality of the site, the Ontario Association of Architects recognized the Cinesphere and Pods with its “25-Year Award” in 1999. Meanwhile, the park continued to evolve. From roller rinks to bumper boats, the offerings in the park expanded, and Ontario Place seemed to drift ever further from its original vision.
A Modern Cultural Landscape at Risk
Citing financial concerns, the Government of Ontario announced in early 2012 the immediate partial closure of Ontario Place pending a major redevelopment to be completed by 2017.4 This announcement came somewhat unexpectedly, and while many would have agreed that Ontario Place was ready for some type of renewal, there was general concern that the redevelopment could place the entire park under considerable threat.
To raise the profile of Ontario Place, Docomomo Canada-Ontario was successful in having the site listed on Heritage Canada’s Top 10 Endangered List in 2012.5 In addition, Nathan Storring worked with ERA Architects to curate an exhibit, “Your Ontario Place,” which explained the park’s original intentions, explored its meaning to the public, and projected a range of possible approaches and options for any redevelopment of the site. The original architect, Eberhard Zeidler, an officer of the Order of Canada, spoke out with respect to the stewardship of Ontario Place describing it as, “A fantastic Jaguar, and you run it into a ditch.”6
Recognition as a Cultural Heritage Landscape
Exercising due diligence in 2013, Ontario Place underwent the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sport’s Heritage Identification and Evaluation Process under the leadership of Tamara Anson-Cartwright, Heritage Advisor. This process culminated in a Cultural Heritage Evaluation Report, and the subsequent recognition of the significance of the site: “Ontario Place is a cultural heritage landscape of provincial significance.”7 According to the Vision Statement within the Statement of Heritage Values:
Ontario Place, opened in 1971, was conceived by former Premier, the Honorable John Robarts, as a showplace for the province’s identity, culture and economic growth. Ontario Place was designed as an inclusive public entertainment, educational and recreational space and programmed to reflect the province’s people, culture and geography, as well as a vision for the province’s future.
Ontario Place featured innovative new landforms and structures built on Toronto’s waterfront, reshaping the relationship between the urban landscape and Lake Ontario. Ontario Place, a cultural heritage landscape, remains a rare and intact Modernist expression of integrated architecture, engineering and landscape that honours and incorporates the natural setting of Lake Ontario. It was a remarkable and ambitious achievement of late twentieth century architecture, and holds an enduring influence in Toronto, the province and internationally.
The Ontario Place Corporation has since become subject to Reg. 157 of the Ontario Heritage Act. According to Anson-Cartwright, the care and management of Ontario Place is now under the provincial heritage property framework and will be done in accordance with the Ontario Heritage Standards and Guidelines; and the Statement of Cultural Heritage Value will inform the preparation of a Strategic Conservation Plan as part of the government’s property planning and asset management.
Within the existing policy framework for the Province of Ontario, these measures provide the best level of protection for the conservation of Ontario Place and its continuity into the future. Furthermore this example demonstrates, yet again, the applicability of a values-based approach to assessing modern built heritage and cultural landscapes.
Renewal of Ontario Place
Despite considerable incremental change, the values of Ontario Place survive in its continued recreational use, its park-like waterfront landscape, its Cinesphere, and its monumental interconnected pavilions with their bridges and platforms suspended over the water.
There is general acknowledgement that Ontario Place will benefit from renewal, given that its evolution from Ontario’s first urban waterfront provincial park to a pay-per-admission amusement park was both incremental and lacking in a larger vision for its integration with the adjacent Exhibition Place and the changing city fabric.
In July 2014, the province announced its long-term vision for Ontario Place, which includes, “a collection of green spaces, a blue park for water activities, flexible spaces for festivals, live-music year round, a culture, discovery and innovation hub, a canal district with shops and restaurants, conservation of the Cinesphere and pods…” and other features.
Ontario Place is among a number of sites from the post-war era in which there has been considerable public investment for arts, culture, education and recreation purposes. The official recognition of the heritage values of Ontario Place is an important step in recognizing the broader legacy of the modern era in Canada. Given the committed investment to the renewal of Ontario Place, there is considerable potential to demonstrate that conserving modern heritage can contribute to the enrichment of the built environment and to building sustainable cities.
James Ashby, OAA, MRAIC, is an architect based in Ottawa, and a founder of Docomomo Canada-Ontario. He specializes in the built heritage of the modern era, and its conservation and continuity into the future.
Michael McClelland, OAA, FRAIC, CAHP, has specialized in heritage conservation, heritage planning, and urban design for over 25 years. He is a founding partner of ERA Architects, and constant advocate for creative, values-based approaches to heritage conservation and urban development.