Running blindly, gleefully, through the Punching Bag Forest – a creation of the “father of soft play” Eric McMillan – as my sweaty little face briefly stuck to the bags as they slapped me silly. And slowly, peacefully, gliding underneath Eb Zeidler’s five futuristic pods on smooth-as-glass water via candy-coloured paddleboat.
That these two very different early memories of Ontario Place stand out in my mind is fitting: Ontario Place was both frenetic and utterly soothing, a place to dance and eat and have fun but also to meditate and get lost in nature.
And much of that has to do with the work of landscape architect Michael Hough.
Most Torontonians know Mr. Zeidler’s story: While working on McMaster Health Sciences Centre in 1968, he got an unexpected phone call about a new, Expo 67-like complex to be built on the CNE grounds. The building(s) would feature an exhibition trumpeting the province’s achievements in technology, industry and culture.
Soon, the idea expanded to buildings across Lake Shore Boulevard, placed directly into Lake Ontario (the five “Pods”) along with an experimental movie theatre in a triodetic dome (the world’s first IMAX, the Cinesphere). When Mr. Zeidler realized 90 per cent of his budget would go to massive underwater foundations (to combat the lake’s powerful forces), he was disheartened … until a family vacation to the Bahamas illustrated how coral reefs create calm lagoons. So, by sinking three Great Lakes freighters to create a breakwater, Ontario Place could be born.
But without the two man-made islands – the brainchildren of England-born Hough (1928-2013) and New Jersey-born Jim Stansbury (born 1942) – Ontario Place would have been only half the attraction.
Mr. Stansbury, now working in Bradenton, Fla., remembers the first time the Ontario government’s Jim Ramsay, who was “like an ex-Marine,” and Mr. Zeidler, clomped up the stairs to Mr. Hough’s second-floor office on Colborne Street: “They threw this little thing on the table in our boardroom, a little paper model representing the pavilions and the columns that supported the pavilions were straight pins. … They had a little Styrofoam ball next to it which was Cinesphere and then they had this squiggly little green stuff around the east and the west side.”
While the landscape architects would eventually transform the “squiggly” stuff into full-blown islands, the first task they were given – with a 30-day deadline – was how to handle the “mass of people and limousines” that would show up on opening day and every other day afterward. Since the little model showed only a bridge from the CNE to the first pod and “we can’t have an elevator there [handling] 10 people at a time,” Mr. Hough and Mr. Stansbury came up with an “entrance mound” made of landfill south of Lake Shore Boulevard, with ample parking separated by stands of majestic pine trees.
Mr. Zeidler and Mr. Ramsay were impressed, and, since they’d already determined that “we need to have a lot more going on outside if we expect anyone living in Toronto to come more than once a year,” the small firm was hired to develop two islands with nature trails, a canal system (Mr. Stansbury remembers the canal idea may have come from one of Mr. Ramsay’s men who had worked in advertising), seating, restaurants and, because the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was considering an outdoor concert series, some sort of music venue.
Mr. Zeidler, however, was adamant that the team never lose focus on the real attraction: “Eb said, ‘Look, I understand all this programming stuff,’” Mr. Stansbury says, “‘but don’t you dare take away what is a view of water all the way to the horizon; the whole design here is lake … you’re going to work for me, and I’m the boss, right?’”
Provided that inform their decisions, the two landscapers were given free reign. But because big waves had to be tamed, the Harbour Commission helped figure out where to place armoured stone points on the new islands (Mr. Stansbury says with all the construction of underground parking lots and the extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway, getting fill was easy; they could even charge construction crews for the convenience of dumping right downtown). Inland, lake gusts had to be transformed into gentle breezes via grading, plantings and berms; for this, a large, detailed model was placed in the University of Toronto’s wind tunnel (Mr. Hough founded the university’s landscape architecture program in 1965) along with pellets; where would the pellets move aggressively, where would they stand still? Revisions were made “right on the spot,” Mr. Hough said during a 1979 lecture to University of Manitoba students, to achieve “the concept of seeing water in its different manners.
“On the outer edges, it was possible to look at the boats sailing on a breezy day and see the waves acting up, and on the inner edges it was quiet and passive water.”
And, should you, gentle reader, have visited Ontario Place in the 1970s as I did, you would’ve experienced this contrast. You might even have shed a tear when that intimate music venue, the Forum (along with hundreds of trees), was demolished in 1994 and replaced with the Molson Amphitheatre. Even in 1979, Mr. Hough had expressed concern at changes he’d witnessed in the eight years Ontario Place had been in operation, pointing to a large round pond/fountain that had been paved over to create a roller skating rink.
Even overzealous groundskeepers who would weed-whack areas that were designed to naturalize were a problem, says Mr. Hough’s widow, Bridget: “That used to drive him crazy,” she says with a laugh.
Ms. Hough, heritage architect Catherine Nasmith, architect William Greaves, Mr. Zeidler’s oldest daughter, Margie, and Your Humble Architourist have all assembled on a cold November day in 2019 to see what landscaping remains. The canals exist, of course, but fallen tree trunks in murky water speaks of neglect, as do fenced off areas and broken pavers (that’s to say nothing of temporary food service buildings placed right in front of Mr. Zeidler’s futuristic crystalline buildings as if they were invisible). We don’t bother to go where the Forum was, since its grassy slopes are a memory. We spot only a few original benches and light standards. We shake our heads at the garbage on the west island’s rocky beach.
“And this is where we get back to the maintenance,” Ms. Zeidler said. “You need the same visionary people that designed it to be running it, you know?”
Closed in 2012, Ontario Place faces an uncertain future. In the wake of being added to Heritage Canada Foundation’s Top 10 Endangered List in 2012 and to the Docomomo US website in 2014, Mr. Greaves nominated it to the World Monument Fund’s 2020 Watch. Doug Evans, a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Britain), who approved the nomination, says that Mr. Zeidler’s buildings, which usually get all the attention, “are diminished without the designed landscape.
“Were any of Hough’s landscape features to be lost – the canals, the berms, the quiet-versus-loud, dense nature-versuss-open space – the whole cultural landscape would be irretrievably diminished, and there are currently no legal frameworks to prevent that from happening. … Ontario Place must be protected, saved and conserved because it is a world class cultural heritage site.”
He’s right. It should be to Toronto what the Opera House is to Sydney.
As our little group heads towards the rusting bridge that will take us back to the parking lot, we consider creating an advocacy group called “Friends of Ontario Place.” Because if ever this world class site needed friends, it’s now.
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