“Architecture is building and it embraces our whole life, not only through its beauty but also through function, economy, humanity – everything that affects us. I am honoured to be part of this task.” – Eb Zeidler
Eb Zeidler’s Rogers building might be hard to fathom. His Eaton Centre might have benefited from being a tad wider, to make it less of a mall to hurry through, more of a place to linger in. And if it had been built three metres further west, Yonge from Dundas to Queen might feel less constricted, less of what Jane Jacobs called a “border vacuum.”
But these are quibbles. Every one of his projects left enormous marks on the look and feel of the city that Zeidler gave fabulous buildings to help it become a bold, forward-looking and playfully postmodern place for all Ontarians. When he left us on January 8 at the age of 95, Canada lost an architectural giant.
Through his first 18 years in Canada, Zeidler’s fuse sizzled.
In 1969 his talent exploded, with the McMaster Medical Centre on the site of the still mourned sunken garden at the foot of Hamilton Mountain, where it gleams still, looking as new as it did the day it was born, a welcome relief from the norm that allowed architects to design hospitals more hideous than Victorian prisons. That was a convention Zeidler broke again with his atrium for Sick Kids in Toronto. It’s being broken now, by new hospitals everywhere.
In 1983 Eb Zeidler combined his respect for the architecture of the past with his passion for creating architecture for the future, when he took on the challenge of adapting the colossal art deco Queens Quay Terminal Warehouse that was built in 1927. With a crown of glassy condos and elevators that look like they might be flying to heaven, where another architect might have crushed it, this building soars, inside and out.
His conservationist banner was one that Zeidler’s architect daughters would fly with triumph. Christina through her conservation of the Gladstone Hotel with its “artist-designed rooms” and preservation of one of Toronto’s last manually operated elevators. Margie with 401 Richmond, the turn of the 20th-century former tin lithography factory she turned into a home for galleries, co-ops, creative businesses and non-profits, few of which could operate in downtown Toronto without her fight to give her tenants rents they could afford.
But Zeidler’s greatest gift to the city will always be Ontario Place, a previous Progressive Conservative government’s answer to Expo ’67 that promised to be “A mirror to show you yourself. Your heritage. Your land. Your work. Your creativity. And your tomorrow”.
It was a promise that Zeidler fulfilled, with Michael Hough, creator of a landscape of artificial islands out of soil from the digging of the Bloor-Danforth subway, and Eric McMillan whose Children’s Village was inspired by his memories of playing in bombed out buildings in England. Today, with its pods, its myriad little grey podlets and Cinesphere, Ontario Place might be the province’s Stonehenge, remade in steel and glass, a Stonehenge that refuses to die.
In 2012, Eb Zeidler became the first recipient of Architectural Conservancy Ontario’s Post-1945 Award (that is now its Award for Heritage of the Future). That was the year that Ontario Place was supposed to have closed. Today, the log ride on the West Island is almost a ruin. The silos around it are locked, gaunt, empty. The Children’s Village is gone, replaced by a sheet of asphalt that calls itself Echo Beach. Gone too, since 1994, is the beloved Forum, where the Toronto Symphony duelled with screaming gulls and the roar of Argos fans that rolled over Lakeshore Boulevard. But, more than 50 years after it was built, while plans to reimagine it grind through the various intestines of the provincial imagination, all is not lost.
What remains of Ontario Place is a “ machine in a park” in an enchanting artificial landscape open to runners, bikers, sailors, children, parents and dogs. The pods remain closed, the podlets look doomed but in 2017 the Cinesphere re-opened, fully restored with a new IMAX screen. (At last year’s Toronto International Film Festival it premiered Denis Villeneuve’s Dune). Also in 2017, Trillium Park by LANDInc, opened on what used to be a parking lot, with forest, rock wall, beaches, fabulous views of the city and homage to First Nations that Zeidler, Hough and MacMillan would have admired.
In January 2019, the province issued a call for tenders to “create a new world-class destination on the Ontario Place site”. Two years later, after a tsunami of controversy (during which ACO secured the induction of Ontario Place on the Watch List of the World Monuments Fund) the province’s invitation to potential devourers is clawed back. Hough’s islands remain available for re-development but most of what remains of Zeidler’s Ontario Place is protected, with Trillium Park.
If the proposals adopted for Ontario Place Redevelopment are built, pods and Cinesphere will be surrounded by Therme Group’s “family-friendly, all-season destination”, by Ecorecreo’s “affordable, all-season adventure park for all ages”, and Live Nation’s “modern, year-round indoor-outdoor live music and performance venue” (that will replace its hideous, non-Zeidler Budweiser Stage).
What of the five soaring pods that no developer seems to be interested in? Science programming in collaboration with the Ontario Science Centre is one suggestion. Nothing wrong with that, in a world that needs science more than ever before.
The Future of Ontario Place Call for Counter Proposals produces three winning entries out of scores. Alluvium, would retrofit the pods to “become a facility focused on climate-proofing the species of the Carolinian forest biome”. Megalandscape would allow the pods to become jungle-clad, post-Anthropocene relics with nature embracing the landscape around them to “create a place of gathering for all people, plants and animals of the province and beyond”. Toronto’s Urban Backyard would “create spaces that are free, unordinary and interactive and non-prescriptive for people of all ages and abilities.”
While Ontario Place was under construction, Zeidler designed Harbour City, a project for high-density development between Coronation Park and Hanlan’s Point. According to Jane Jacobs, the proposal marked “The most important advance in city planning that’s been made this century. It shows us what high-density living can be.” But it would never be built.
As its future unfolds, what will Eb Zeidler think of what becomes of his jewel by the lake when he looks down on it from on high?
I hope he will not be disappointed, that he will be amused and maybe impressed by whatever replaces it. He gave us so much, it’s the least he deserves.
Richard Longley is a former president of Architectural Conservancy Ontario.