Your Ontario Place

2 August 2012 - 5 November 2012
Ontario Place, frozen.

Ontario Place is a mirror to show you yourself. Your heritage. Your land. Your work. Your creativity. And your tomorrow.

—Ontario Place promotional brochure, 1969

Incredible change looms over Ontario Place. The iconic architecture and the bright colours of the village, the signs and the waterslides are at odds with the eerie silence. It is waiting for a decision from us.

How did we get here? How did the confidence that Ontario Place displayed in those early years slip into meandering uncertainty? Once we were able to say proudly, “Ontario Place: It’s All Yours!” and now it’s as if we’re left to ponder a question: “Whose Ontario Place?”

This exhibition reconstructs your Ontario Place through conceptual drawings, rare photographs, and the original model from the archives of Craig, Zeidler & Strong architects.

How It All Began

Born out of Canada’s optimistic nationalism of the late 1960s, Ontario Place began as a desire to replace the Ontario Pavilion at the Canadian National Exhibition and revitalize Toronto’s over-industrialized waterfront. Dazzled by Expo ’67 in Montreal, the Government of Ontario proposed a brand new facility, separate from the CNE. And upon the suggestion of architect Eberhard Zeidler, they decided to “plunk it into the lake”— cavalier words that did not do justice to the challenges ahead.

Quickly, Zeidler found that engineering the elevated Ontario Place Pods against waves and wind would cost 90% of the project’s budget. Distressed by this roadblock, he took a vacation with his family to the Bahamas where he observed the wave-breaking action of barrier reefs. He realized that by constructing an artificial reef of sunken ships and landfill around the foundations of the Pods, the cost of engineering them could be reduced from $9 million to $900,000.

As a result, Zeidler and his collaborators suddenly had 51 acres of landfill that needed a use. After some debate, they agreed to furnish the new grounds with the beloved Forum, the Children’s Village, three commercial “villages,” and a marina, not to mention a wealth of canals, walkways and wooded areas. Ironically, these secondary elements outlasted the exhibition in the Pods — the initial motivation for the project — by decades.

Almost all construction materials for the project originated in Ontario: the steel of the Pods was mined and refined in Ontario, the landfill hauled from Toronto’s booming construction sites, the Cinesphere’s architectural processes and materials hailed from Eastern Ontario, and many of the trees were transplanted from provincial lands near Barrie.

The Pods

The Pods

The five suspended Pods were once the heart of Ontario Place. Built to replace the Ontario Pavilion at the CNE in 1971, four of the Pods initially held an elaborate multimedia exhibition exploring the past, present and future of Ontario. At the outset, the exhibition was so integral to the idea of Ontario Place that Premier John Robarts used “exhibition” and “Ontario Place” interchangeably in a speech promoting the project. The remaining Pod held four restaurants, each with its own distinct atmosphere.

To tell the story of Ontario, the exhibition employed a combination of multitrack stereo sound, artifacts, and projections onto hundreds of hanging, inflated shapes that the audience could move through. The first three areas presented the natural and human history of the province, from the beginning of life on earth to the post-WWII economic boom. The fourth area explored the future, featuring emerging technologies alongside our anticipated challenges, notably the degradation of the environment.

Because the exhibition never changed, attendance soon diminished and it was dismantled shortly after. Recently, the Pods have found another life as an event rental facility, only allowing a select few to enjoy these unique buildings today. In this new life, the Pods abandoned their role as a public space for all Ontarians—a torch passed on to other parts of the park.

Built to Adapt

From their inception, Eberhard Zeidler intended the Pods to accommodate nearly any use that might inhabit them, exhibitions or otherwise, so they were designed for maximum flexibility through simplicity. Despite the unique aesthetic of the bridge-like suspension structure that elevates the Pods over the lake, at the most basic level, each Pod is an 8,000 sq. ft., three-storey box. It can be clad in glass or steel, cut up with interior walls or floors, and have its pedestrian traffic redirected with modular ramps and bridges. The Pods were even designed for easy reproduction, so the cluster of five could theoretically grow in number endlessly. Zeidler writes in the architect’s statement, “this principle of growth and change carries within itself the solution of the problems of our cities in the future.”


The Cinesphere

The Cinesphere

When it opened, the Cinesphere attracted people in droves, even during the slow opening weekend of Ontario Place. The “bubble” next to the Pods (technically, a triodetic dome) was the first permanent home of IMAX—a Canadian-conceived, large-format film projection system, invented for Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. Refining earlier experimental techniques that used multiple projectors to create films that wrapped around the viewer, the first ever IMAX movie,Tiger Child, required only one projector, and filled a six-storey screen in Osaka. Ontario Place bought that projector from Expo ‘70, and used it at the Cinesphere for 40 years, finally retiring it in 2011.

A 1969 promotional brochure for Ontario Place proudly advertised the wonders of the Cinesphere a year before Tiger Child had been produced, and in fact, before the technology itself was even usable. What’s more, the Ontario Place dome attempted to push IMAX even further. It featured 24-track, 400-speaker audio, and was equipped to show conventional film formats alongside IMAX films. The architects even developed an innovative curved screen to show the full potential of the projector. IMAX went on to perfect this curved screen technique with IMAX Dome, as seen at the Ontario Science Centre.

Before its closure in 2012, Cinesphere still served as a cinema, presenting a variety of documentaries, popular films, and film festivals.

First Four Films

The first four films commissioned for presentation at the Cinesphere examined different regions of Ontario, each with a budget of only $270,000. The two lesser-known films, Home By the Waters and Where the North Begins (directed by David Mackay, producer of the award-winning A Place to Stand) showcased life in South-Western and North-Central Ontario respectively. Michael Milne and Peter Pearson’s better-known Seasons in the Mind offered a lyrical portrait of the people of Eastern Ontario throughout the seasons. The most famous of the four, IMAX co-founder Graeme Ferguson’s North of Superior, presented the wild beauty of Northern Ontario, from waterfalls and rapids to forest fires. Ferguson’s stunning use of aerial cinematography became a staple of future IMAX documentaries.


The Forum

The Forum

Over the years, the Forum hosted such big names in music as Ray Charles, BB King, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlin, Tina Turner and Gordon Lightfoot, not to mention a host of ballet, orchestral, and multicultural acts. With an impressive tented roof and a rotating stage, the Forum comfortably seated 2,500 under the canopy and 5,000 more on the surrounding hills, though the Canadian Encyclopedia claims some events packed in up to 20,000 people.

In 1991, talks began about adding a new amphitheatre to Ontario Place, which evolved into a plan to replace the Forum. In 1994, a group opposing its demolition (and the “chainsaw massacre” of 400 mature trees) formed around journalist Lisa Rochon and architect Eb Zeidler. The demolition moved ahead regardless, protected by the autonomy Ontario Place held as a Crown Corporation located on Provincial land.

The Molson Amphitheatre that replaced the Forum seats 16,000 and sports updated audio-visual systems. It continues to draw crowds and top musical acts; however, unlike the Forum, the Amphitheatre rarely shared patrons with Ontario Place itself due to its disconnection from the rest of the grounds.

HMCS Haida

Every year at the Forum, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra would perform Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, punctuated by a gun salute from the warship HMCS Haida docked nearby at Ontario Place. The last surviving example of WWII-era Tribal Class destroyers built for the Royal Canadian Navy, the Haida sat in a basin North of the Children’s Village until 2002, when it moved to Hamilton. Touted as “Canada’s fightingest ship,” the Haida served during preparations for D-Day off the coast of France, sinking more enemy ships than any other in the RCN. In 1952, it also became the first ship ever to receive the title of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship. While at Ontario Place, the Haida acted as a museum recounting its history and the lifestyle of the men who served on it.


The Islands

The Islands

When we’re finished, it should look like God made it.

—Eb Zeidler, quoted in “The $19 Million Magical Mystery Tour,” Toronto Week, May 22, 1971

Ontario Place was imagined as an integrated project, seamlessly fusing architecture, art, nature, and city, each element complementing and learning from the others. Landscape architect Michael Hough designed the islands as a complex network of wooded areas to explore, providing countless views of the Pods, Toronto’s skyline, Ontario Place’s 350-slip harbour, and the grounds themselves. Hough intended the islands to eventually evolve into an untended woodland, more like Tommy Thompson Park than the lawns and gardens of High Park.

Out of this landscape rose the East, West and Harbour Villages, the Forum, and the Children’s Village, which all used repetitive patterns to evoke the kind of beauty commonly found in nature. The Villages, in particular, were meant to appear from one side like a rock formation jutting out of the land, and like the Pods, new modules could be added to them, growing in geometric patterns like crystals. From the other side, however, this natural image gave way to an urban one. Storefronts inspired by pop art and contemporary graphic design exploded with colour and liveliness, and crowded restaurant patios spilled onto the waterside promenades.

This balance between tranquil natural settings and bustling urban ones offered visitors a variety of experiences, but this subtle balance has slowly been crowded out by the ever-growing number of attractions.


The Children's Village

The Children's Village

For the first year of its operation, Ontario Place offered no attractions designed for children. When the Children’s Village opened in 1972, attendance lept by over 500,000—a success that marked the beginning of Ontario Place’s slow transformation into a children’s theme park.

However, the Children’s Village had a very different character than Ontario Place’s later child-oriented attractions. Designed by play structure pioneer Eric McMillan, it consisted of open-ended equipment where children could test their skills in front of their parents and peers. Unlike amusement rides, which offer entertainment to be passively consumed, the Village relied on children’s own drives to run and scream, to build things and knock them over, to perform and safely flirt with danger.

The original play structure required relatively little maintenance and staff supervision (aside from a nearby First Aid tent), and no electricity. Much of the equipment could also be removed from under the tent, theoretically allowing the Village to double as space for events such as trade shows, and avoiding the need for a dedicated event area that sits empty when unused.

The conversion of Ontario Place at large into a more profit-oriented, ride-based children’s theme park eventually led to the replacement of the Children’s Village in 2002 by paid miniature midway rides.

It Takes a Village...

Ontario Place was a dream job ... Unfortunately the management of the project became driven by power struggles. I tendered my resignation three times to protest the strangling of the project’s spirit and potential. On the third occasion, the management’s response was to close down the whole design department.

—Eric McMillan, “Dreams for North America”


The Long Goodbye:
What happened to Ontario Place?

1971-72: Ontario Place opens its doors
1972-73: Children’s Village opens
1973-74: Waterplay area & Alice in Wonderland mini golf open
1978-79: Water slide opens, first in Canada; reflecting pool paved to become ice rink
1979-80: New rink opens in summer as roller rink
1980-81: Ontario North Now opens in 7 concrete silos; bumper boats introduced
1981-82: 70mm film festival begins at Cinesphere
1982-83: Future Pod opens, featuring new technologies like the Canadarm
1983-84: Additional parking built on new landfill off eastern shore
1985-86: West Island reopens with northern Ontario theme, focused around new Wilderness Adventure Ride
1986-87: Patricia Starr becomes chair; Baseball Hall of Fame replaces Future Pod
1987-88: Premiere of fireworks competition Symphony of Fire; Province launches inquiry into accounting practices
1988-89: After cutting deficit, Starr resigns amidst unrelated allegations of fraud; Clare Copeland becomes chair
1990-91: Lego Creative Play Centre replaces Baseball Hall of Fame
1991-92: Free admission begins, Cinesphere & Forum draw 200,000 less visitors
1992-93: Global recession & rainy season affect attendance; Nintendo Power Pod opens
1993-94: Megamaze replaces Ontario North Now; IMAX films & Dinosaur event draw crowds
1994-95: Rainy season affects attendance; SeaTrek opens
1995-96: Molson Amphitheatre replaces the Forum; Atlantis complex opens in Pods
1996-97: James Ginou becomes chair; free admission ends; Ontario Science Centre opens 2nd IMAX screen in GTA
1999: Introduction of nation-wide fast food restaurants at Ontario Place, including Pizza Pizza & Mr. Sub
2001: South Beach volleyball complex opens; Symphony of Fire does not return after 14 seasons; TTC discontinues direct transit
2002: Miniature midway rides replace Children’s Village on East Island; staff reductions & internal reviews lower deficit
2003: SARS outbreak & Northeast Blackout affect attendance; Go Zone opens on West Island
2004: David Crombie becomes chair; Heritage Days program expands
2005: Green initiatives begin, reducing both environmental and monetary costs
2006: Premiere of Rogers Chinese Lantern Festival
2007: Legal issue over property tax inflates operating loss; costs partially refunded in 2009
2009: Joe Halstead become chair; Wild World of Weather replaces Megamaze; Heritage Square opens
2010: Request for Information issued regarding ideas to revitalize Ontario Place


Ontario Place, thriving.

Whose Ontario Place?

Ontario Place represents the boundless optimism of an era we have somehow left behind. Many mundane conversations today have revolved around how to reduce costs, rather than how we can harness the incredible resources, accomplishments and potential that surround us in Ontario.

Nearly every inch of Ontario Place was from Ontario, and nearly every inch of it was award-winning. Eberhard Zeidler, Michael Hough, Eric McMillan, and the founders of IMAX— those innovators who first imagined such a place — have gone on to revolutionize their fields. It seems inevitable looking back, but make no mistake, these ideas were untested and unproven. Yet Premiers John Robarts and Bill Davis, as well as the citizens of Ontario, boldly pursued them nonetheless.

Who are the new innovators today? And if they revealed themselves, would the citizens and government of Ontario have the vision to recognize them, and the confidence to take a chance on them? Only time will tell.


Interested in hosting an exhibit?

 

Curated by

Nathan Storring