Far-out architecture in South Humber Park
Coming across the Oculus Pavilion for the first time is like stumbling upon E.T.’s spaceship in a wooded clearing. Found along the Humber River trail in South Humber Park, about a kilometre north of the river mouth, this most Space Age of public washrooms has been long closed and allowed to fall into disrepair.
The Oculus is quintessentially mid-century modern, with a concrete saucer that seems to float in air along with a curved building covered in flagstone that houses the old toilets. The hole in middle makes it an oculus. Move over, ancient Roman Pantheon, Toronto used to build public washrooms like you did temples. When underneath it, the saucer creates an echo and amazing sonic environment that has hosted impromptu musical performances.
Its derelict state was a melancholy sight, but a new, temporary, public art installation called “Brighter Days Ahead” foretells of the pavilion’s future. The yellow vinyl stripes affixed to the saucer and its slender pillars are designed by Giaimo, a Toronto architecture and heritage conservation firm also responsible for its restoration.
Last year, they, along with the Architecture Conservancy of Ontario’s (ACO) Toronto chapter, received a “Public Space
Incubator Grant” in 2019 to kickstart the restoration from Park People, a non-profit advocacy organization for Canadian parks. Though delayed by COVID-19, the sunny rays will brighten up fall and winter for a few months until work can begin in 2021.
“We didn’t want people to think the delay in restoration plans meant that the Oculus had been forgotten, and we didn’t want to lose the momentum that the project already gained from the grant,” says Stephanie Mah, VP of ACO Toronto. “Once we realized the restoration couldn’t happen until spring 2021, we started to think of small but fun and uplifting ways we could still draw attention to the space, activate it for the community, and get people excited about the pavilion and its future potential.”
Back in 2016, an unsympathetic renovation proposal would have demolished the washrooms and covered the ground and poles with stone reminiscent of a Keg restaurant’s aspirational Canadiana kitsch décor. Around this time, the Oculus was put on the ACO’s list of “at risk” buildings while Toronto writer and historian Chris Bateman dug up its long-forgotten details.
South Humber Park was created on a former golf course a few years after Hurricane Hazel devastated the valley. Bateman found that the “shelter and comfort station” was designed by British-born architect Alan Crossley and “precast concrete pioneer” Laurence Cazaly, and was completed in 1959.
All of this interest in the Oculus led to a formal and extremely detailed heritage evaluation report on not just the pavilion, but the landscape around it too, carried out by Brown + Storey Architects in 2019. They found that “the remarkable character and high quality of its architectural and engineering design” exemplified “the adventurous optimism of the modernist era in Metropolitan Toronto’s early public buildings.”
Indeed, in parks around the city, unique modernist shelters and washroom buildings can be found from the same era.
The heritage assessment deemed the structure stable and a full restoration possible, though Giaimo found blocked drains in the poles, also serving as downspouts, caused a “wading pool” on the roof. “The real challenge is making the Oculus a lively destination instead of just decoration,” says Joey Giaimo, principal at Giaimo Architects. “Our revitalization process has taken time to understand what caused it to get to this derelict state. How do we ensure that it doesn’t get neglected again in the future, and how can this public space be re-programmed and activated to fit the needs of the community for years to come?”
There are a few lessons to take away from the Oculus, especially now.
At one point, there was a desire to build washrooms in public places, but also to design them with style and elegance. As winter approaches and people are encouraged to go outside, finding accessible washrooms remains a real problem.
So often, past investments in quality architecture like this have been squandered with neglect and underfunding. The Oculus is not too different than our schools, also sometimes allowed to deteriorate to points where demolition is a viable option. Necessary ventilation improvements have been put off too, contributing to the school crisis we have today.
“Modern architecture is often overlooked despite representing a significant era of optimism and growth in Toronto and Canada,” says Mah. “We see the Oculus revitalization as a way of demonstrating that a lot of value can be found in our existing infrastructure, from both a cultural heritage perspective, as well as an environmental and social sustainability one.”
Colours, especially bright and uplifting ones, are hard to come by in grey Toronto. Perhaps this installation will inspire other bright interventions around town and give people more reasons to get outside during the pandemic winter.