Canadian culture is at home in halls of concrete. In the 1960s, the federal government built Centennial Projects in cities across the country: theatres, concert halls and galleries to house the arts of the burgeoning nation. Ottawa got the National Arts Centre. Toronto got the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, which opened in 1970.
The downtown Toronto theatre complex by Gordon S. Adamson & Associates is still there, a bit worn down and somewhat underused. It’s on the city’s Inventory of Heritage Properties, with very good reason. But the people who run it want to tear it down. TO Live, the city’s theatre agency, has a scheme to “redevelop” the St. Lawrence and replace it with a new centre.
This idea has no clear logic: It’s an expensive construction project with no obvious motive. But it does have the flavour of empire-building and consultant overreach, and a dubious understanding of how urban places actually work. It deserves to go away, quickly.
The proposal, which goes to the city’s executive committee Thursday, is murky. But the basic pitch is familiar: A facility that functions, but is seen as outdated and ugly, needs to come down for something flashier – in this case, according to a TO Live report, “a place for meeting and the exchange of ideas.”
This, more or less, is the story of every heritage preservation battle of the past 60 years. It rarely ends well.
Argument 1: The old building is in bad shape. "It would take an enormous amount of work,” TO Live president and chief executive officer Clyde Wagner said in an interview, to make the centre accessible to people with disabilities and deal with building maintenance. This work comes with an estimate of $42-million.
Argument 2: The new thing is better. A redevelopment would “contribute to the city” in a new way, Wagner said. But it would cost much more, $180-million to $200-million. Asked which organizations might use these theatres, and where an additional $100-million in public funding and up to $60-million in donations might come from, Wagner said: “We’re not there yet." He refused to speculate on such details until “city council has given the green light.
By then, it’ll be too late to ask whether the idea makes any sense. It may already be too late. Mike Williams, the city’s director of economic development and culture, told me the project “deserves real consideration.” This is “the third or fourth time that somebody has proposed redevelopment of the St. Lawrence,” he said. “Clearly, there’s momentum.”
Toward what? Why?
The redevelopment would allegedly create a “hub for arts and cultural performance in downtown Toronto" – notionally connected, Williams said, to other venues as far as one kilometre away. This makes no sense except as lines on a map. But at St. Lawrence, it would build two new theatre spaces, slightly smaller than the existing underused houses, and it would have a larger lobby suitable for events and as a public lounge.
The latter is the fashion of the moment. “A contemporary performance and art space has life in it at all times of the day,” Wagner said. He cited as examples such as The Shed in New York and Southbank Centre in London.
I’ve visited both; they’re successful social spaces as well as flexible cultural venues. But Southbank involves Modernist heritage buildings. Its recent renovation didn’t tear them down; it improved them.
There’s a lesson here. The St. Lawrence Centre should not be up for demolition, period. But if the goal is “a space for the community to gather and live within,” as Wagner told me, why not expand the centre’s lobby space? Triple the size of the sidewalk; reduce Front Street’s car lanes to one from four; and close the entire street for occasional events.
That, and a sensitive renovation of the St. Lawrence, would solve most of the same issues at a fifth of the price. Also: It would preserve the embodied energy and cultural history locked up in this building, for another day and another big idea.