As I write this, the transformation of Ontario Place seems imminent: from public all-age playground to $40-a-day privatized resort; from architectural gem to corporate ensemble of glass and steel. For those of us who consider this 155-acre Toronto waterfront park to be inseparable from its original public purpose and programming, the entire complex is on death row. As It Is: A Precarious Moment in the Life of Ontario Place is either an alarm bell or a requiem to the beloved landmark. If the latter, as seems likely, it behooves all of us to contemplate deeply — in words and images — what we are about to lose.
The book is comprised of 102 black-and-white photographs, mostly by Steven Evans (and largely produced between November 2021 and June 2023), interwoven with texts by Evans, John Lorinc, and Maia-Mari Sutnik. Each of the three brings a different perspective and expertise to this book. Lorinc, an astute critic of urban life and form, unpacks the political and social history of Ontario Place; Evans provides the meat of the book through his photographs and explanatory texts; Sutnik, the founding curator of photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario, offers a scholarly analysis of Evans’ work.
Evans is one of a handful of photographers across Canada who specializes in architectural photography — a sub-genre of the medium that requires a poetic as well as a practical understanding of the built landscape. At his best, Evans captures what can best be described as the soul of a building. His most powerful work tends to be black-and-white photos of architecture that embodies a larger public purpose beyond its physical reality and daily programming. The Sharon Temple, Fogo Island, and ancient stone buildings of Portugal figure among these. We can add this photo-requiem of Ontario Place to that list.
Futuristic pods, seemingly afloat above Lake Ontario, Bucky-Fulleresque Cinesphere, decommissioned water-slide tower, the silos and sloping rooftops all relay the story of public joy dismantled by government indifference. Completed in 1971, Eberhard Zeidler’s architecture and Michael Hough’s landscape design work together in rare symbiosis, captured eloquently in these photographs. Many of the images relay intriguing details: carefully planned berms that tame the incoming wind; a breakwater’s overwash drain; the artful framework beneath pods and pavilions.
Unlike the exuberant “honey shots” of design magazines or tourist brochures, the photography exudes a pathos that is fitting for this moment in Toronto’s civic history. The years of neglect have not been kind to the architecture, with much of it decommissioned or debased. Still, the way Evans has captured the patina of rust, dirt, mottled concrete, and graffiti shows this place as something that is dignified, poignant, and moving, like the woebegone subject matter of Roy Arden or Walker Evans.
Even when bereft of people, as most of these photographs are, they still seem to be about people, and the haunting aspect of their absence. A particular chilling photograph is simply captioned “Path leading to the derelict Wilderness Adventure Ride,” a classical composition that projects a ghoulish tableau. Foregrounding the photo is a wide footpath, flanked with bare trees, which narrows into a dusty hillscape with cavities and crannies evocative (to me at least) of an anguished face of a human at death’s door.
Ultimately, the images depict something more than a built landscape; they capture a sense of place. That shopworn but still essential term, as Lorinc writes, denotes “how ambience, sensation, aesthetics and even psychology can elevate a certain set of coordinates above the mundane and all which is placeless.” Wholly funded by the provincial government and developed in the wake of Centennial-year excitement and boosterism, Ontario Place could have turned out to be a cartoonish boondoggle, and yet it “quickly found its way into the soul of the city,” writes Lorinc. Like so many other Canadians (and not just Torontonians), his critical perspective on Ontario Place is intertwined with personal experience, and his individual memories spanning the course of decades — teen entertainment, then family bonding, then contemplative dog-walks — remind us how rare it has been to enjoy a truly public place, addressing all demographics at all life stages.
And soon, barring civic insurrection, Ontario Place will be architecturally reconfigured into a new recreational entity — for those who can afford it. The spa crowd might flock to it, but its original character and purpose will vanish altogether. The public aspect is part of the very definition of placeness, avers Lorinc. That is why, he concludes, “it must again become a civic space for everyone — not just those who can pay to play.”