Architect who designed Ontario Place would be 'horrified' by current proposals, daughter says
Daughter of Eberhard Zeidler imagines public art gallery, science centre for revitalization
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 1960s.
"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, 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 such amenities as the Cinesphere — the world's first permanent IMAX theatre — and the five pods.
He also designed myriad prominent buildings, such as the Eaton Centre, the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Queen's Quay Terminal and numerous sites and monuments across Canada and internationally.
"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 such as Island Public/Natural Science School on Toronto Island.
Bill Greaves, an architect and board member of the 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 demolished.
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 provincial 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 it moves forward with redevelopment.
There is no word on when those consultations would take place.
Advocacy group says 'radio silence' from government
Ken Greenberg, an urban designer, retired architect of 27 years and member of the advocacy group Ontario Place for All, says the government has refused to speak with the group or listen to its 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 a 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.
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 who 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."
- A previous version of this story identified Ken Greenberg as an architect. In fact, Greenberg is now an urban designer who worked as an architect for 27 years.Mar 17, 2021 6:27 PM ET