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 concluded 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 recreational 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.”
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 state-of-the-art theatre from sometimes mighty waves and winds coming off the lake, landfill would be used as a protective barrier. That, Zeidler realized, could be used to create several man-made 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 Cinesphere 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.
A Children’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,” said Zeidler.
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 under $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 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 $12.8-million 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.”
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags