Roll down Unwin Avenue, with the dump trucks, and this is what you will see: Mountains of road salt. A waste treatment facility. A bus garage. And, just maybe, a future cultural hub of the city.
That is, the Hearn Generating Station – a brick behemoth of a power plant that will contain this year’s Luminato Festival.
Jorn Weisbrodt, the festival’s outgoing artistic director, has gone all-in: Luminato will spend an estimated $2.5-million on building a temporary “residency” within the Hearn. Overseen by theatre consultants Charcoalblue and upstart design firm Partisans, it brings a powerful architectural experience into the festival’s mix.
When Luminato kicks off next weekend, thousands of audience members will find their way to this rubble-strewn, wild corner of Toronto. In a generation, the Port Lands will be rebuilt as new neighbourhoods that could house more than 40,000 people. But for now, the area, and the Hearn, are totally obscure.
So Luminato’s move is a gamble, and when I first visited the Hearn last month, it felt perilous. Three weeks before the festival, the 1,200-seat main theatre was just being put together. Work crews hustled through the Hearn’s 400,000 square feet of glorious industrial ruin – which will be free and open to the public during the festival. The concrete floors were pitted and studded with steel stubs; most of the tall, cathedral space was still dark.
And yet the magic of the space was already obvious. Fragments of the plant’s turbine hall, house-sized hunks of concrete that will hold festival bars and installations, marched away 200 metres into the gloom. A few 20-foot shipping containers lay about like toys; these steel boxes, which carried fittings and equipment into the space, would help form walls in what Partisans calls “architectural Jenga.”
Mr. Weisbrodt seemed serene about the looming deadline. “We come from the theatre world,” he mused, “where people are used to working quickly and in parallel.”
On the other hand, I said, theatre companies aren’t usually building an entire theatre in a few weeks. “We are building an entire cultural institution,” he countered.
The 16-day Luminato will bring theatre, music, dance and much more into the Hearn, with an eclectic schedule that includes the National Theatre of Scotland, Rufus Wainwright and artist Scott McFarland. Partners include the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Film Board of Canada and the Design Exchange, which will “activate” booths within the Hearn. Since the festival launched a decade ago, “the spirit has been about adventurous art in adventurous spaces,” Mr. Weisbrodt argued. “But I don’t think that presenting theatre in the Mirvish Theatre is adventurous.”
Theatre in the Hearn is, to be sure, an adventure. It’s one of the largest rooms in North America and one of Toronto’s most remarkable spaces. Opened in 1951, the plant served a crucial role in Ontario’s power grid. But it’s been out of service since 1995, the plant equipment scrapped, the space left to decay (as much as millions of tons of steel and extra-dense concrete can decay).
The festival has had a presence at the Hearn for the past two years, and Mr. Weisbrodt was beaming at the prospect of taking over the place. As we were walking the hall’s upper mezzanine, workers were assembling a giant mirror ball – Michel de Broin’s One Thousand Speculations, commissioned by Luminato in 2013. “This is how God must have looked on the Earth after he made the Earth,” Mr. Weisbrodt said. Then a set of work lights pierced the darkness, and the mirror ball scattered their light across the ruined expanse of the Hearn.
Cleaning up the Hearn and readying it for the festival falls to Partisans and Charcoalblue, along with structural engineers Blackwell. For Charcoalblue project manager Jerad Schomer, getting the theatre right was “an extreme challenge, just starting with the size of the room,” he said. The acoustics were booming and messy – which is fine for electronic music, not so much for a trilogy of history plays. The solution: to line the place with “an immense amount” of cushy fibreglass duct liner, hanging from the ceiling in big, pirate-black banners.
But mostly the design defers to the industrial sublime of the building. They’ve brought in a temporary construction elevator to lift guests to the upper mezzanine, will use electronic road signs to communicate information and have salted the interior with specially modified shipping containers.
The design “isn’t about anything swoopy,” said Alex Josephson of Partisans. “It’s about access, it’s about transparency, it’s about letting the Hearn sing. And I think that’s an incredible opportunity for the city.”
Mr. Weisbrodt cited Jane Jacobs’s adage that “new ideas must use old buildings.” The obvious comparison is to the Tate Modern in London, which occupies the former Bankside Power Station, in a once-unfashionable neighbourhood, and has become one of the world’s most visited art museums. This month it opened an expansion that will help to accommodate the more than four million people who visit each year.
And yet Mr. Weisbrodt is adamant that the Hearn project is something qualitatively different. “The Tate Modern is a new building with old ideas,” he argued. “It’s the same woman, contemporary art, in a new dress. Here we are making a new person – a new soul.”
He argued that the Hearn gives a focus to the genre-hopping festival, and allows audiences to move from one event to another – from the theatre to the outdoor beer garden to a queer hip-hop dance party or to a parkour workout. This is true, and design is both an animating force and part of the mix. Partisans will host a series of talks at the Hearn on the future of the city, and set up an office within the festival that will spin out ideas for the Port Lands and the Hearn. (Guests will include Omar Gandhi.)
Mr. Josephson, who leads Partisans, along with Pooya Baktash and architect Jonathan Friedman, have been working on the interior fit-out, and they’ve been grinding it out: At one point last week, Mr. Josephson was running to Home Depot to buy black paint for the floor of the stage.
But the scope of this dream is huge: It is nothing less than a work of architecture reshaping society. Mr. Josephson connects it to the visionary period of the 1960s, citing Cedric Price’s Fun Palace scheme for a post-industrial site in east London – which, like the Hearn “residency,” was a set of temporary structures meant to bring the city together and suggest a new social order.
Getting this experience right, and setting a precedent for a permanent arts presence at the Hearn, could change Toronto’s future. The Hearn could serve as a hub for the new neighbourhoods of the Port Lands, which Waterfront Toronto is now expecting will hold about 40,000 residents and 40,000 jobs. Most residents of the city don’t understand the scale of this vision yet.
Luminato seems ready to catch that wave. CEO Anthony Sargent, won’t speak to the festival’s long-term ambitions just yet. But “bringing the Port Lands back into the city’s consciousness,” he said, “is a city-building exercise in itself.”
And for the many Torontonians who don’t know the Port Lands, going to the festival’s performances or merely hanging out at the Hearn will be a consciousness-raising experience, and an aesthetic one. “Being in a place like this affects you metaphysically,” Mr. Josephson said. “Images can’t do that. Performance can do that. And architecture can do that.”