ERA Architects

Ontario Place and the value of cultural heritage sites

Opened in 1971, Ontario Place was created to be a hub for Torontonians to experience the waterfront and take part in entertainment activities, from the open-air amphitheatre and the Cinesphere, the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre, to the Children’s Village play area and exhibit space.

Ontario Place was the embodiment of the province’s economic and cultural prosperity of the time — a response to Montreal’s Expo67 four years earlier, and an example of the Modernist design principles of the day.

In the following decades, Ontario Place saw a decline in visitors and investment. In 2011, the province closed large portions of the site, and the disbanding of its governing board followed in 2018. The province has now made it known they’re seeking a long-term lease for the space, moving Ontario Place away from public governance to private ownership and development.  

World Monuments Fund is now calling for it to be saved, and importance as a site with heritage and cultural value to be recognized. 

Every two years, the Fund releases a list of cultural heritage sites around the world deemed as at-risk of being lost. This year after a successful campaign by a Ontario group, Ontario Place has joined 24 other sites on their 2020 World Monuments Watch list.

A view of Ontario Place over the water.

Heritage isn’t just exclusive to the oldest buildings in a city or a country, it can also pertain to places with an important cultural value to the experiences and histories of its community.

Many times, this kind of social importance is combined with a more traditional heritage value, and a site has design, historic and cultural significance. Ontario Place is one of these spaces.

In 2014, Ontario Place was added to the List of Provincial Heritage Properties. At the time, the province approved its statement of cultural value that detailed its significance.

“The site in its entirety — integrating innovative approaches to planning, landscape, architecture, engineering and educational programming — represents a bold visionary statement of its time realized at a scale and quality that earned international recognition and admiration,” reads part of the statement. “As an entertainment, educational and recreational centre serving the entire province, Ontario Place has attracted millions of visitors since its opening in 1971 and has remained a familiar and iconic landmark for many Ontarians and visitors.”

Ontario Place

How can Ontario Place continue to a valuable public space? The World Monuments Fund recognizes this in their write up on the site, outlining the vision of what Ontario Place can once again become.

“Through free and public access to the waterfront, Ontario Place can continue to foster interaction and exchange across population groups and fulfil the potential envisioned by its creators,” the site reads.

As an architecture firm rooted in work that connects heritage to urban design, city building and larger conversations of cultural values, we truly believe Ontario Place has the ability to once again, through investment, public engagement and design centred on community, become a thriving public space for Toronto – its residents and its visitors.

Read more on WMF’s statement on Ontario Place