Architect who designed Ontario Place would be ‘horrified’ by current proposals, daughter says

While the provincial government remains tight-lipped about the future of Ontario Place, the daughter of the architect who designed it wants redevelopment plans to preserve both the site’s cultural heritage and her father’s “incredibly unique” architectural structure.

“I think Ontario Place can have another life,” said Margaret “Margie” Zeidler, daughter of renowned architect Eberhard “Eb” Zeidler, who designed the iconic 63-hectare waterfront in the 60s.

“It may not be the same life it was, but I think it can use the bones that it has — the architecture and the landscaping that it has,” she said.

Zeidler is one of many advocates fighting to keep Ontario Place a public space for all amid the government’s call for bids on its redevelopment.

Currently in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, Eb doesn’t recall his life as an architect or any one of the buildings he created, Zeidler said.

But she believes he “would be horrified” about the proposed plans for Ontario Place, so it might be better this way. 

“I’m happy that he can’t know what’s happening. It would break his heart,” she said. 

‘A really magical place’

Now 94 years old, Eb, designed Ontario Place in the 60s for people without summer cottages — a place for everyone, Zeidler says.

Opened to the public to 1971, the site featured amenities like the Cinesphere — the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre — and the five pods. 

He also designed a myriad of prominent buildings like the Eaton Centre, the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Queen’s Quay Terminal and numerous sites and monuments across Canada and internationally.

Eb Zeidler looking out across Ontario Place in the 1970s. Eb, now 94 years old, designed Ontario Place in the 60s including amenities like the Cinesphere — the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre — and the five pods. The site was opened to the public in 1971. (Submitted by Margie Zeidler)

“As kids, we were often dragged off to the construction site on weekends,” Zeidler recalled.

“But it was really special when it opened. I’ll never forget the opening weekend. It was just a really magical place,” she said. 

Zeidler favours repurposing the pods for an annual art gallery, similar to how In/Future, an art and music festival, transformed Ontario Place in 2016; or using the site as an environmental centre, a centre for excellence in health or an educational facility like Island Public/Natural Science School on Toronto Island. 

Bill Greaves, architect and member of the board of Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO) shares her sentiments. 

“Sometimes places are important for their architectural merit… And some places are also important culturally for what they mean to people,” Greaves said.

“Ontario Place is so important in both those ways,” he said, reminiscing about the birthdays he spent at Children’s Village in his youth and the concerts he attended at the Forum. 

Both sites have since been closed or demolished, respectively. 

Children’s Village at Ontario Place in the 1970s. (Submitted by Margie Zeidler)

Greaves was instrumental in adding Ontario Place to the 2020 World Monuments Fund (WMF) Watch — a biennial list of the world’s 25 most endangered sites that are of important cultural heritage and in need of timely action.

He says the government’s call for proposals last year did not include “any protection whatsoever” for the heritage elements of the site, and that everything except the Budweiser stage could simply be demolished. 

Redevelopment to play ‘critical role’ in COVID-19 recovery

When reached for comment, the province would not provide an update on the plans for revitalization, but said the redevelopment of Ontario Place will play a “critical role” in the province’s economic recovery from COVID-19.

“We received a great response to the 2019 Call for Development, which encouraged interested parties from around the world to take a fresh look at this unique waterfront asset and build on its existing strengths,” read a statement to CBC News from Ontario’s Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries.

“The process is ongoing, and we will share details at the appropriate time,” the statement continued. 

The province also says it will engage with Indigenous communities, the City of Toronto, stakeholders and the public as they move forward with redevelopment. 

There is no word on when those consultations would take place. 

Advocacy group says ‘radio silence’ from government

Ken Greenberg, an architect, urban designer, and member of the advocacy group “Ontario Place for All” says the government has refused to speak with them or listen to their proposals. 

“It’s been radio silence, which is kind of alarming,” Greenberg said. “The one thing that we hope that they are paying attention to is how many people care about Ontario Place.”

In 2019, Ontario Place for All commissioned a study by consulting firm focusing on the value of public space.

The report found that “it would be a terrible, terrible decision to sacrifice Ontario Place as a public space,” Greenberg said.

Blank tags were left for people to fill out after viewing the ‘Your Ontario Place’ exhibition in August and September of 2012 at the Urbanspace Gallery in 401 Richmond Street West, a restored, heritage-designated building. (Submitted by Margie Zeidler)

George Baird, architect and former dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto, says the government’s plan lacks transparency. 

“It has adopted a process here which doesn’t have any public consultation, which doesn’t have any transparency, and which leaves open the whole question of how responsible these submissions will be,” Baird said.

‘This is not a piece of real estate’

In the end, Zeidler says her father cared less about preserving the design of his creations and more about the people that enjoyed them.

“That’s all he talked about […] through my life was how people engage with places emotionally; I think he really cared about how people felt when they were in his spaces,” she said.

She says she hopes the future of Ontario Place pays homage to its history in that sense.

“I think [revitalization] needs to come with a vision about who we are as a society. You know, who we want to be, what we value in the world,” she said.

“This is not a piece of real estate, plain and simple.”

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