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Curtain rises, again, on Ontario Place's Cinesphere

The 60-foot by 80-foot curved screen of Cinesphere during construction, April 20, 1971.

The theatre, which will open to the public in November, is part of a vision to transform Toronto's waterfront into a widely accessible park

Ontario Place is coming back to life.

The province will announce this week that the site's Cinesphere theatre will open to the public in November for regular events and screenings. Following that, the waterfront site, just west of Toronto's downtown core, will host a series of public events this winter. It's part of a vision to transform it into a widely accessible park for downtown Toronto that will also be a hub for cultural and sports events.

"We imagine a new series of pavilions and experiences along the lakeshore that will be worth the drive, or the bike ride, to go down there and spend time," says Alex Josephson, with the architecture firm Partisans.

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Partisans, together with landscape architects at Janet Rosenberg & Studio and other consultants, have won the job to provide a vision for the interim revitalization of the site, and then to create detailed designs. The first stage of the work was a quick renovation of the Cinesphere for the Toronto International Film Festival in September; now the team is working on a renovation to the landscape and existing buildings.

The designers' ambition is to treat the existing site, which opened in 1971 with designs by architect Eberhard Zeidler and landscape architect Michael Hough, as a venue for a variety of temporary events. The Cinesphere, housed in a 19-metre dome, and the "pods" – large, glassed-in exhibition halls that stand on pylons above Lake Ontario – will house a variety of events. Ontario Place "should be a platform that can adapt and change as the world around us changes," said general manager Nancy Rowland.

Workmen wait for a crane to finish maneuvering the cap of Cinesphere into position, Oct. 26, 1970.

"We're recognizing that the pods themselves and the Cinesphere are really the heart of Ontario Place," Ms. Rowland added. She said Ontario Place staff are exploring film screenings and other uses of the Cinesphere. "We're trying to get them back into use. They've been inaccessible for a long time."

This means dealing with a considerable design legacy – a set of radical buildings that were the province's answer to Montreal's Expo 67. Mr. Zeidler adopted the technical ambition of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome and Frei Otto's West German Pavilion. In these buildings, Mr. Zeidler has written, "the technological possibilities of their day… were crystallized in a form that finally became an expression of their time."

Ontario Place "is an icon," says Pooya Baktash, who leads Partisans along with Jonathan Friedman and Mr. Josephson.

The details of the design and programming are still being developed, Ms. Rowland said. But Mr. Josephson said: "We're imaging a series of pavilions and lookouts that could range in use from reading room to a lookout to fire pits to bike trails. And a sauna; imagine polar bear dipping in Lake Ontario."

Partisans's best-known projects include a sculptural private sauna on Georgian Bay, but the office is also working on new retail spaces in Union Station and completed the temporary fitout of the Hearn Generation Station for the Luminato Festival in 2016.

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Their involvement suggests an unorthodox vision on behalf of the province for the 50-acre site. It had evolved toward a commercial theme-park model with rides and water park, to diminishing success, before closing in 2011.

Now the vision is to create "a catalyst to bring people down to the water," said Janet Rosenberg, the landscape architect. She calls the project "incredibly exciting." In Toronto, "we're talking about making new green space – look at the Rail Deck Park idea – and here's this green backyard on the edge of downtown."

The existing site, which opened in 1971, evolved into a theme-park model but eventually closed in 2011, due to diminishing success.

Recent events on the site, including the In/Future festival in 2016, have explored the proposed mixture of park space and cultural uses. The opening of the Trillium Park and William G. Davis Trail in June, also brought attention to it. "It's become obvious that the best thing to do would be to fix this and provide access again," Mr. Josephson said.

"Given the escalating cost of living in the city, given the growing cachet of being in Canada and in Toronto, this kind of public amenity is more and more important. You can't underestimate programmed park space on the lakefront."

The long-term vision for Ontario Place remains up in the air. The province has studied the site for housing and institutional uses, which may still be developed. However, the current push to retain the site – which holds strong memories for many Torontonians – suggests that it could become "a park for people who live close by," Mr. Baktash said, "and for all of Ontario."

Ms. Rosenberg added: "I am of the generation for which it was an incredibly important destination. And now there's enough magic in the existing infrastructure … that it will become important in the city again, and it will introduce a new generation of kids to this place."

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Here's hoping. In a fast-growing central city, the importance of the public realm – as green space and for cultural events – can't be overstated. This is an opportunity for Toronto to rediscover a gem, and do something magical, again, on the lakefront.

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