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the architourist

The Oculus, a public washroom structure built in a Toronto park in 1959 was in a serious state of disrepair and in danger of being demolished when fans stepped in to save it.Giaimo

When I last visited the alien rune stone 11 years ago, Toronto’s citizenry were no longer interested in making contact with the Venusians. Old-timers, however – the ones who lived near South Humber Park anyway – knew that on nights when Venus would appear framed in the structure’s oculus, certain vocal frequencies, as amplified by the disc, would reach the planet, and the dialogue that began in 1959 could be continued, since there was still so much information to share between our two planets. But those old-timers, saddened by the graffiti and general decay of the Venusian disc, had stopped coming … so much so that, in 2016, the little alien pavilion was threatened with demolition.

Okay, so only a very small part of the above paragraph is true. But fantastical structures such as this tend to inspire sci-fi nerds such as myself into fits of fantasy.

In reality, “the Oculus,” as it has become known, is a composition of three parts: a curved and flagstone-clad washroom building; a concrete canopy-disc with an ‘eye’ in the centre; and a trapezoidal patio made of flagstone. Conceived by architect Alan Crossley and engineer Laurence Cazaly in 1958 and built in 1959, the Oculus sat in a clearing as part of newly created parkland (formerly a golf course) and sewage treatment plant built in response to the ravages of Hurricane Hazel in 1954, which washed away homes in the area and claimed 81 lives.

In those heady days of Sputnik, Alan Shepard, and the Space Race, folks could park at the treatment plant and easily find their way down to the Crossley-Cazaly flying saucer and dream of Venusians (or Martians) under the cool shade it provided. However, when the treatment plant expanded decades later and it wasn’t as easy to spot the high-flying structure, it fell into disuse and, eventually, disrepair. As the trees and brush grew ever closer, only those who walked the Humber River Recreational Trail (built 1980) could marvel at its alienness, but few had reason to approach once the washroom was boarded up.

By 2016 and as part of a park revitalization plan, the City announced it would completely remove the curved washroom building, replace the flagstone plaza with concrete and leave only the disc (but with altered steel columns).

Thankfully, this raised the ire of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO), says ACO Toronto president Stephanie Mah: “The public reached out to us on Twitter, saying ‘this is going to get demolished.’ … So we stepped in, we did an online petition, we put it on our At Risk Registry [and] we reached out to the City and the City, thankfully, listened.”

By 2019, the ball really started rolling when two things happened: an amazingly detailed report for the City’s Heritage Preservation Services department was completed by Brown + Storey Architects, and Ms. Mah, unaware of the Brown + Storey report, decided to apply for a $36,000 grant from Park People’s “Public Space Incubator” program. Receiving the grant allowed the ACO to collaborate with Giaimo, an architecture firm that specializes in heritage restoration, which immediately conducted a building condition assessment.

More funding followed by Friends of the Pan Am Path, HNR Properties and Creative Silhouettes, and the team was granted permission to do an “exterior restoration” by the City of Toronto. “So we weren’t able to touch services like water or electricity,” Ms. Mah says, “but we were allowed to restore the exterior and to us that was a great first step.”

Before that first step was taken – and because the COVID-19 19 pandemic had hit – the ACO and Giaimo began to enliven the space with “a series of engaging and education programming that provided the community with ongoing occasions to visit the site,” according to a 2021 ACO publication titled The Oculus Revitalization. Mr. Giaimo, who also teaches at Toronto Metropolitan University, had his students envision fantastical uses for the structure, such as a “staircase up to the top and then it becomes a viewing platform,” which, laughs Ms. Mah, “sounds like a liability.”

Then, in October, 2020, with the restoration still postponed, the team dressed the disc in big yellow stripes for a temporary installation called Brighter Days Ahead.

In June and July of 2021, the restoration finally took place.

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In the year since the little complex has presented its much cleaner face to the city, the response has been “incredible,” Mr. Giaimo says: “This a testament to the popularity and importance of this pavilion and public space in general; its reinsertion into park programming is a great example of leveraging existing architecture as a socially and environmentally sustainable approach to city building.”

The evening I visited with Ms. Mah, Kevin Murphy and Daniella Kandasamy were hanging decorations between the columns in anticipation for “Oculus Open Mic Thursdays,” which mostly hosts acoustic musicians (since there are no electrical outlets) who, ironically, don’t live in the area.

“I actually don’t know if anyone who attends regularly lives nearby,” Ms. Kandasamy says.

“A lot of people come from downtown,” Mr. Murphy agrees.

So what attracts musicians to this Space Age relic more than a dozen kilometres from Queen West or Dundas West, I wonder? Well, as Mr. Murphy explains, when the event started in 2020 “there were no indoor music performances,” but a small part of me thinks it might also be something else. While Toronto has some amazing architecture from the 1950s and 60s, very little of the superexpressive, California ‘googie’ stuff made it up here. Save for Uno Prii’s Flower Power apartment buildings and the odd hamburger joint shaped like a flying saucer, we’ve got precious little, so what we do have is, indeed, precious … and even non-aficionados can sense that.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Venusians really do have us under their spell.


To access Brown + Storey’s report, visit brownandstorey.com and type “Oculus” in the search box. The ACO publication The Oculus Revitalization is not currently available to the public, but it’s hoped a PDF version will be available online soon.

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