From the start, On­tario Place was about the fu­ture

Ar­chi­tect’s bold plan crafted a water­front park where we could ‘let our imag­i­na­tions soar’


It was meant to be a place for the peo­ple.

But On­tario Place was also con­ceived with a bit of hubris in mind.

It also was built with­out build­ing per­mits.

The idea was first pitched by then Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive pre­mier John Ro­barts in Au­gust 1968 as a new ex­hi­bi­tion space for the prov­ince — an ex­panded Cana­dian Na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion — in re­sponse to Expo 67, which had just con- cluded to great ac­claim for Mon­treal, which was ri­valling Toronto as a cul­tural jewel.

Ro­barts, who was open­ing the Ex that day, the Star re­ported, called the prov­ince’s vision in part a “ma­jor new recre- ational com­plex for the use of the peo­ple of On­tario.” The pro­ject would see the CNE open longer; it would in­clude water el­e­ments like those at Expo and repli­cate the suc­cess of On­tario’s pavil­ion at the re­cently con­cluded world fair, he said. It would re­flect the same “mood of gai­ety and open­ness.”

“We should let our imag­i­na­tions soar,” Ro­barts said. His pitch was ex­pected to cost as much as $150 mil­lion, the Star re­ported the next day.

It was ar­chi­tect Eberhard Zeidler, now 93, who was called on to dream up the de­sign. At first Zeidler was asked to look at build­ing a new ex­hi­bi­tion in­side the ex­ist­ing On­tario Gov­ern­ment Build­ing at Ex­hi­bi­tion Place, he de­scribed in his book Build­ings Cities Life.

Zeidler and the se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials he was work­ing with had other ideas.

“We felt that if the new pro­ject was go­ing to be a show­place for On­tario, it should be on neu­tral ground. It could not truly rep­re­sent all of On­tario in Toronto’s Ex­hi­bi­tion Place, and so the idea grew to put the build­ing into Lake On­tario,” he wrote.

The first sketch of Zeidler’s vision looks un­can­nily like what Toron­to­ni­ans would come to know and love as they crossed the bridges over Lake Shore Blvd.

The idea was born out of an ini­tial need to com­bat Mother Na­ture. In or­der to pro­tect the ex­hi­bi­tion spa­ces of five float­ing pavil­ion “pods” and a sta­teof-the-art the­atre from some­times mighty waves and winds com­ing off the lake, land­fill would be used as a pro­tec­tive bar­rier. That, Zei­dle r re­al­ized, could be used to cre­ate sev­eral man­made is­lands that he thought could host per­for­mances, restau­rants, shops and other play ar­eas. It would be much more, he thought, than a re­fur­bished ex­hi­bi­tion space.

At the heart of the site were the “pods,” which are es­sen­tially three-storey boxes sus­pended over the lake and used for both ro­tat­ing ex­hibit spa­ces and restau­rants. Most iconic is the 800-seat domed Cine­sphere made of alu­minum al­loy tubes — “the big golf ball,” as one kid in an early com­mer­cial coined it. It was the first per­ma­nent IMAX the­atre in the world. For decades, the Cine­spher e housed the first IMAX pro­jec­tor that was used at Expo 70 in Osaka, Ja­pan, ac­cord­ing to a 2012 ex­hibit called Your On­tario Place, held at the Ur­banspace Gallery and cu­rated by Nathan Storring. The first screen­ing was Cana­dian film­maker Graeme Fer­gu­son’s mes­mer­iz­ing North of Su­pe­rior. Later, Hol­ly­wood block­busters like In­di­ana Jones were played.

It took a lot of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion to get it right. Zeidler talks in his book of build­ing a “mock dome” in the base­ment of their Madi­son Ave. of­fice and try­ing to pro­ject slides onto it to see if they could make a curved screen work. There was also the 2,500-seat Fo­rum open-air the­atre, with its grass lawn. It drew crowds to see the likes of Ella Fitzger­ald and Johnny Cash.

AChil­dren’s Vil­lage, opened later, was for the time a novel play­ground full of atyp­i­cal climb­ing struc­tures and cu­riosi­ties that en­cour­aged climb­ing, splash­ing and jump­ing. The water slides and bumper boats came af­ter.

“It kind of some­how hap­pened the way I thought it should hap­pen,” Zeidler told the Star in a re­cent in­ter­view about how his orig­i­nal draw­ing came to life.

Not ev­ery­thing went ex­actly to plan with con­struc­tion, though.

One day, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials sug­gested they start work on the land­fill for the is­lands, Zeidler wrote in his book. The next day, trucks ar­rived on site to move the earth around, with that provin­cial go-ahead.

“A dam be­gan to grow into the lake,” Zeidler re­mem­bered. “One day, an army of Metro po­lice cruis­ers ar­rived and de­liv­ered a stop-work or­der, be­cause we had no build­ing per­mit. All hell broke loose.”

There was con­cern, he wrote, that the gov­ern­ment would look silly for stop­ping work on a pro­ject it had talked up for months. In the end, the of­fi­cers were told to get lost or they’d be fined and that the prov­ince didn’t need per­mis­sion from the city.

And that was how the con­struc­tion of On­tario Place was “of­fi­cially sanc­tioned,” Zeidler said.

In Fe­bru­ary 1970, leg­endary Star pho­tog­ra­pher Boris Spremo was on scene when Ro­barts him­self was ex­pected to of­fi­cially open a bridge to the is­lands from the CNE. When work­ers went to lift in the fi­nal piece, they dis­cov­ered the bolts to se­cure it didn’t fit. Warm weather was blamed for ex­pand­ing the bridge struc­ture. The bridge, Zeidler re­mem­bered in his book, was fixed only half an hour later, but by then the cam­eras had gone.

To make a long break­wa­ter on the south­ern part of the site, they de­cided to sink three freighters.

Zeidler and those work­ing on the pro­ject thought they’d make a big party out of it, gath­er­ing on an­other ship to watch them sink and hav­ing, Zeidler noted in his book, “a lot to drink.” As the engi­neers had care­fully cal­cu­lated, how­ever, the boats sank only a few inches into pre­pared sand­banks, so those wait­ing with an­tic­i­pa­tion didn’t get much of a spec­ta­cle. The new space opened on time and at a cost of less than $30 mil­lion — well below the ear­lier blue-sky bud­get.

When the turn­stiles started let­ting in peo­ple on May 22, 1971, the Star re­ported a much smaller crowd than the crush ex­pected — per­haps fore­shad­ow­ing at­ten­dance con­cerns in decades to come. For an ad­mis­sion price of $1 for adults, 50 cents for stu­dents and 25 cents for chil­dren over the age of 6, tens of thou­sands would show up that open­ing week­end to see the ex­hi­bi­tion space.

“The vision and scope of On­tario Place gives prom­ise of our vast po­ten­tial,” then pre­mier Bill Davis re­port­edly said the year it opened.

In its hey­day, around three mil­lion peo­ple were show­ing up an­nu­ally.

For Zeidler, On­tario Place was first and fore­most meant to be an ac­ces­si­ble recre­ational space for all peo­ple in a grow­ing city, not sim­ply an ex­hi­bi­tion space. Writ­ing in the Star af­ter the open­ing, Zeidler said an ex­hi­bi­tion “should not be forced into a fixed form.” Such a space, he said, could give “new life” to the water­front in a city whose de­sign cut off ac­cess with ex­press­ways and rail­way tracks.

The idea of On­tario Place also al­ways had one eye on the fu­ture.

Zeidler at the time spoke of the de­sign of the pods over the water, say­ing they pur­posely use as lit­tle ma­te­rial as pos­si­ble to achieve the ef­fect of the pods ef­fort­lessly float­ing above the lake. He hoped it would pro­vide a “glimpse into a fu­ture in which with the full use of tech­nol­ogy, our cities will once again be­come hu­man habi­ta­tions.”

A pro­mo­tional brochure in 1969, ac­cord­ing to the Ur­banspace Gallery ex­hibit, mused: “On­tario Place is a mirror to show you your­self. Your her­itage. Your land. Your work. Your creativ­ity. And your to­mor­row.” It wasn’t just in Zeidler’s head. “When I first came to Canada in 1974, I vis­ited On­tario Place and saw Toronto as the city of the fu­ture,” wrote one vis­i­tor for a dis­play of mem­o­ries at the Ur­banspace Gallery ex­hibit in 2012.

The space was also pitched to On­tar­i­ans as an in­clu­sive place — “Happy To­gether” and “It’s all yours,” early ad­ver­tise­ments

“One day, an army of Metro po­lice cruis­ers ar­rived and de­liv­ered a stop-work or­der, be­cause we had no build­ing per­mit. All hell broke loose.” EBERHARD ZEIDLER ON­TARIO PLACE AR­CHI­TECT

boasted. “It was an ex­cit­ing time,” re­mem­bers Zeidler’s daugh­ter Margie Zeidler, who her­self was trained as an ar­chi­tect and is the cre­ator of 401 Rich­mond, a col­lec­tive of artists and en­trepreneurs in a cre­ative down­town hub. “It was a time of peo­ple hav­ing vi­sions for the fu­ture.”

The first signs of trou­ble came when those over­see­ing On­tario Place an­nounced plans for a cor­po­rate takeover that would see the Fo­rum torn down and re­placed with the larger Mol­son Am­phithe­atre (what is to­day Bud­weiser Stage) in the mid-1990s.

Zeidler and his ar­chi­tec­ture firm joined res­i­dents op­pos­ing the plan, but those in charge, Zeidler wrote, were tone deaf to the way in which Fo­rum was in­te­grated into the greater pur­pose for the space. In the end, he be­lieved the de­ci­sion to build the new am­phithe­atre “dec­i­mated” On­tario Place, not­ing a de­cline in at­ten­dance that fol­lowed.

On­tario Place’s at­ten­dance dropped to just over 560,000 guests in 2011. Though it marked an im­prove­ment over pre­vi­ous years as a re­sult of of­fer­ing free ad­mis­sion, ex­penses still far out­weighed an­nual rev­enues, cre­at­ing a $12.8mil­lion op­er­at­ing deficit partly off­set by a provin­cial sub­sidy of $6.2 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the an­nual re­port from that year.

In Fe­bru­ary 2012, the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment an­nounced On­tario Place’s main at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing the Cine­sphere, would close. They asked then chair of CivicAc­tion, now Mayor John Tory to lead a re­view of how to re­de­velop the site. There has been no over­all re­de­vel­op­ment of the site since then.

An in­no­va­tive mu­sic and arts fes­ti­val called in/fu­ture an­i­mated the aban­doned west is­land in 2016 to much ac­claim, in­clud­ing a write-up in the New York Times.

In 2017, the new Tril­lium Park and Davis trail opened on the east is­land un­der the Kath­leen Wynne gov­ern­ment, fol­lowed by screen­ings re­sum­ing at the Cine­sphere, in­clud­ing a reprise of North of Su­pe­rior (and also, up­com­ing, In­di­ana

Jones). There were plans to ren­o­vate the in­te­rior of two of the pavil­ion pods as multi-pur­pose space, with a provin­cial ten­der that went out in 2018. A spokesper­son for the prov­ince says the con­tract to ren­o­vate the pods was never awarded but didn’t ex­plain why.

Ac­cord­ing to a state­ment on the prov­ince’s web­site, the On­tario Place site and its mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­ture cel­e­brated by many Cana­dian and in­ter­na­tional awards was found to be a “cul­tural her­itage land­scape of provin­cial sig­nif­i­cance.” How­ever, it is un­clear what re­quire­ments that places on the prov­ince for fu­ture de­vel­op­ment. Ques­tions about the site’s her­itage sta­tus were not re­turned Fri­day by the min­istry re­spon­si­ble.

Those who ex­pe­ri­enced On­tario Place in its prime have kept dis­tinct mem­o­ries of an ad­ven­tur­ous sum­mer, a daz­zling movie-go­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, or a con­cert un­der the stars.

“Per­haps it was Utopian,” wrote one vis­i­tor on a card de­scrib­ing their ex­pe­ri­ence with On­tario Place dur­ing the 2012 Ur­banspace Gallery ex­hibit.

“But it was what true pub­lic space is about. We should learn from its suc­cesses and rein­vent it for the fu­ture.”

John Ro­barts, right, the pre­mier who first pitched On­tario Place, vis­its the site dur­ing con­struc­tion with pro­ject man­ager Oliver Stephens.


Lead ar­chi­tect Eberhard Zeidler’s orig­i­nal sketch of the con­cept for On­tario Place is very close to what was built and still ex­ists there to­day.


Pre­mier John Ro­barts was on hand for the 1970 open­ing of the bridge to the On­tario Place pavil­ion is­lands. But when work­ers went to put the last sec­tion of the bridge in, it didn’t fit.



Ar­chi­tect Eberhard Zeidler, seen here in the space he helped cre­ate, says the de­ci­sion to tear down the Fo­rum dur­ing the ‘90s and build a new am­phithe­atre “dec­i­mated” On­tario Place.


To achieve the float­ing ef­fect, Zeidler says the pods used as lit­tle ma­te­rial as pos­si­ble.


The Cine­sphere be­gins to take shape ahead of the park’s open­ing in May 1971. It would later be­come home to the world’s first per­ma­nent IMAX the­atre.

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