In 1971 the Province of Ontario opened an affordable amusement park to be owned and enjoyed by the people. Fifty years later, I can’t imagine the Province doing something on its scale again. Ontario Place wasn’t for business, or real estate. It was for us. In the words of a 1969 promotional brochure, “Ontario Place is a mirror to show you yourself. Your heritage, your land, your work, your creativity and your tomorrow.” Much of that mirror is gone and going.
Ontario Place was built with a sense of purpose with the goal of being something meaningful. John Robarts, the Premier at the time of the park’s construction remarked “We felt there was need in Ontario for something akin to spiritual home”. I think providing that home is exactly what Architect Eb Zeidler accomplished. In this article I want to talk about what made Ontario Place our spiritual home and how changes in it reflect a broader change in our province’s spirit.
The Cinesphere is what’s called a geodesic dome. It’s a golf ball like sphere made from straight lines, and its significant for being a part of the utopian Architecture movement that characterized city building after World War Two. Building materials were scarce in war-torn Europe, and since these domes were cheap to build, cheap to heat, and provided more living space while taking up minimal surface area, architects had high hopes. The domes were also highly durable, and so, people were excited to take large swaths of space and turn them into secure controlled environments on the cheap.
Some ideas for the domes had them housing large green houses, hoping farmers could grow year-round. Others hoped that their affordability, size and efficiency could solve the housing crisis. Either way, geodesic domes signified a commitment to humankind’s ability to use technology to control and shape nature to make life better. Having one at Ontario Place suggested to Province’s commitment to both cutting edge technology, and social progress. True, we used it for a big movie theatre, but what’s wrong with that? The point of the dome was to make space, we used it so that our theatre had space for everyone. If Ontario Place was supposed to say something about life here, I don’t see anything wrong with saying that life in Ontario ought to be fun and that there’s room for everyone to have it.
The Exhibition Pods
Let’s talk about the other significant bit of architecture, the Exhibition Pods. Something about them seems a little off at first glance. After all, they’re these huge buildings with such small anchors. It’s actually the opposite of what we normally see in the building, a large base that gets thinner near the top. Once I learned the origin of this inversion, the buildings seemed a little warmer.
Eb Zeidler and his fellow builders were heavily influenced by Jewish architect Yona Freidman. Following World War II and in light of the mass movement of refugees and immigrants, Friedman tried to reimagine the city so it could avoid conflict. Friedman thought that tension between long-time residents and new ones could be eased if new buildings took up as little ground space as possible while maximizing air space. The other key thing for Freidman was that buildings should satisfy the inhabitant, not the other away around.
The floating pods seek to sooth Toronto’s often tense relationship with Lake Ontario. In order to build, Toronto has often heaped landfill into the lake, slowly pushing it farther away from the city. The pods lead guests to artificial islands, landfill used to bring Torontonians into the middle of the water. With the pods floating above the lake and the islands putting the lake between guests and the downtown, Ontarians now had a space to develop a relationship with the water. Instead of looking out at the lake, visitors walked above it and in the middle of it. The union between buildings, and nature was a major theme in Ontario place.
What is Ontario Place Really About?
Unity through technology for everyone’s entertainment is what Ontario place was really about. The Cinesphere originally played nature films about northern and eastern Ontario. The park later housed a show about the northern lights inside a silo, a nod to Ontario’s farming community. In a more gimmicky stage in the park’s life span, it turned northern Ontario in to a log ride. You could even argue there was representation for suburban Ontario, with a go cart track meant to teach kids about road safety. A bit of a stretch but I think you get the point.
Ontario Place sought to take something from every part of life in Ontario, make it fun and put all in Canada’s biggest city. Better still, it was walking distance from Union Station, the heart of the rail network that built the country. For the great majority who preferred to drive, there was the nearby Q.E.W., site of Canada’s first concrete road. Everyone could get to Ontario Place, and through technology, everyone could find something of themselves and their neighbours on display.
Little by little, Ontario Place was unfortunately shut down to save the province money. Before it was torn down to cut costs, The Forum was the park’s previous concert stage. Like the exhibition pods, it was architecturally significant. The Forum was an outdoor venue that had a large tent like structure that gave the audience shelter from the rain, while also blending the space into the nearby hills. The union of nature and structure at play again. It hosted Johnny Cash, Bruce Cockburn, Kenny Rogers, Glen Campbell and many other stars. The Forum was our hub for experiencing music together. Eb Zeidler protested when it was torn down, certain it was an achievement worth preserving.
The Children’s Village
Ontario Place had something for everyone and that included kids. In my opinion, Toronto has too few spaces for kids to play, let alone places that encourage it. It’s hard to describe The Children’s Village because there was so much there, child sized hamster wheels in the shape of pine trees, rope brides, spider webs, watchtowers, and spinning ladders are just some attractions that come to mind. I’d recommend reading this article to really get a sense of the place. Or, to see it for yourself, check out this video:
The Children’s Village was built in the philosophy of Yona Freidman. Freidman would ask what would the people who use the space like it to be? For it’s creator Eric McMillan, it was a place for children to experiment, take risks, and learn in a space that gave them freedom. Parents could join too but often it was hard to supervise the kids and that was part of the point. Where once sat The Children’s Village now sits a park. It’s a nice park, but there are other nice parks in Toronto. The Children’s Village was a one of a kind place where kids from all over could play in a unique way for affordable price. That’s gone now and the future of what remains is uncertain.
Not the Same Ontario Anymore
Ontario Place shut down in 2011 and while urban explores got a kick out of exploring the abandoned theme park (I’d recommend heading out this weekend to see what’s still around), it’s not the same. I would argue that it’s not the same province anymore. Ontario Place was built to declare an identity. it was saying that Ontario was a place where technical know-how could bring the regions of Ontario together in a celebration of skill and creativity put towards solving problems, having fun and including everyone.
As the province rebuilt and tore down, they also paved over that statement of identity. Though it took nearly a decade to change his mind, the current Premier was originally keen on filling Ontario Place with hotels, malls, casinos, and monorails. It’s kind of funny to me that the Ontario Place imagined in the 70’s seems so futuristic and utopian while these ideas seem like visions from futures past. I don’t know about you, but the last time I went to a casino It felt like less of a mirror into my identity as an Ontarian and more of a window into a retirement home I’d like to avoid. Maybe it’s petty of me to harp on ideas now abandoned, but I bring it up because it shows how much has changed between John Robarts and Doug Ford.
The Future of Ontario Place
Zeidler and McMillan sought to design spaces for the people who used them, and to show off what Ontario was capable of. When the Province took suggestions for the future of Ontario Place, they made it clear that they were not looking to spend money. The Cinesphere and pods were open to development. We keep hearing that everything is on the table…except for a return to the park. That would cost money the government is not willing spend, it’s not 1970 and Ontario isn’t looking to have fun and think big.
You may be thinking “what should happen to Ontario Place next?”. I encourage you to check out The Future of Ontario Place, an organization devoted to preserving the significant architecture remaining on the park and ensuring the public has a say in what happens there.