Zeidler left his mark in Toronto, but it’s an artistic legacy risk

Sherway Gardens appears like a distant, snow-capped mountain range as you approach it on one of the highways that meet in a tangle of ramps alongside. Opened in 1971, it was one of Toronto’s first major regional shopping centers and the reason merchants in Bloor West Village to the northeast invented the concept of a ‘business improvement area’ to compete .

Yet in the late 1980s, the intersection of QEW, Gardiner and Hwy. 427 had become the beast it is today, obscuring the mall. Like Bloor West Village, Sherway had to do something to attract more attention, so they commissioned Eberhard Zeidler and company to build an addition that would make it more visible.

The food court that Zeidler created atop the new retail space was a tent-like structure, designed in the postmodern style of the time, with glass blocks, hanging plants and rich turquoise colors and brown. Incredible light shone through the translucent fabric roof and skylights. Although the “mountains” remain visible from the outside, the interior of the food court was destroyed during a recent renovation to add more generic shopping.

A disgrace, but all too typically the fate of Zeidler’s civic buildings and designs that were both ahead of their time and not yet old enough to deserve proper preservation. When he died last week at the age of 95, the outpouring of admiration and tribute to the architect and his work came quickly. Its buildings defined a very special era in Toronto, when the city was big and ambitiously forward-looking, so much so that the style of its architecture was itself futuristic.

Eb Zeidler compared what could happen to his Ontario Place to having

The Zeidler brand is all over town. Ontario Place is one of the first large-scale commissions. An example of the “high tech” style, the pods and Cinesphere are all beams, pillars and exposed mechanisms, a sort of clean, Blade Runner vision of the future. However, Zeidler’s design was allowed to decline and even decay, and the site’s future was, and still is, in limbo.

The disrespect began decades ago, with the destruction of the original ‘forum’ amphitheater, covered with a soaring roof like Sherways and a theater in the round, replaced by the amphitheater in the form of a shed. Of his most publicly loved creation, Zeidler once said it was like having “a fantastic Jaguar, and you drop it in a ditch”.

He was an architect with grand, city-defining plans, some of which did not come to fruition. Around the same time as Ontario Place was moving forward, Zeidler designed Harbor City, a densely-packed housing complex that could accommodate over sixty thousand people on a series of man-made islands in Toronto Harbour, making the same brought in revered urban thinker Jane Jacobs as a consultant, but the plan was ultimately shelved by city council and the province. We could use this accommodation today.

Zeidler also worked on the initial plans in the mid-1970s for the St. Lawrence neighborhood that would transform an abandoned neighborhood of railroad industrial land into the dense and prosperous residential neighborhood it is today. As Richard White points out in his book, “Planning Toronto: The Planners, The Plans, Their Legacies, 1940-80”, Zeidler’s vision “probably displayed a little too much modernism” for the town hall committee overseeing the project, although some elements, such as a linear Central Park, made it into later designs.

In the early 1980s, when Harbourfront was established, Zeidler converted the former terminal warehouse, built in 1926, into a mix of shops, art spaces and residences. A sort of retro version of High Tech, he created a south-facing, lake-side atrium, exposing the original cast concrete pillars, as if water had worn the building to the bone. It’s a wonderfully sublime little-known space on our beachfront.

The Queen’s Quay terminal, as it is now known, is largely intact, but the same cannot be said for Zeidler’s Eaton Centre, a project on which he again collaborated with Jane Jacobs. Owner Cadillac Fairview (who, coincidentally, also owns Sherway Gardens), has slowly eroded the sleek late 70s design over the years, adding a faux storefront along Yonge, removing the sleek, thin white railings and replacing them with glass, as well as the loss of some of the original lighting and lush vegetation. The greenhouse-like entrance to Yonge and Dundas, once a cathedral of light, vegetation and commerce, now has the charm of a cheaply built aircraft hangar.

Zeidler's original rapid sketch of his vision for Ontario Place which turned out to be quite close to the final layout of Lake Ontario Park.

There are even plans to demolish the Sick Kids Hospital, with its beautiful and whimsical atrium designed by Zeidler in the early 1990s.

The era of mega-projects led by a visionary architect is largely over, so it’s hard to single out a designer who defines Toronto that way today. Raymond Moriyama comes to mind, with his North York and Central Libraries, and the Scarborough Civic Center, but he’s from the same era.

Glass and steel towers, dark brickwork and oversized apartment lobbies proliferate the city, but is there an individual hand that has left the same mark on Toronto today as Zeidler?

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