Momentum grows to save Toronto planetarium from demolition
Over two years have passed since the University of Toronto announced that it would demolish the McLaughlin Planetarium to build a new museum and academic facility.
During this period, the plans for the future of the site have changed a number of times, but the iconic dome building from 1968 that once dazzled visitors with a view of the heavens remains slated for a wrecking crew.
Ever since the planetarium closed down in 1995, there have been calls for its return, but the campaign to preserve the building as monument of mid-century modernist architecture in Toronto has slowly been building since it was launched after U of T announced its fate as part of redevelopment plans.
Spearheaded by Jeff Balmer, an ex-pat professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, the efforts to prevent its demolition are rooted not just in its architectural pedigree, but also its use-value.
"In a perfect scenario, U of T would work to resuscitate the Planetarium to its original purpose," Balmer explains. "During its decades-long period of operation, [it] was highly successful, both in terms of its educational mission... and in terms of its financial performance."
The Ontario Science Centre has a planetarium but it pales in size compared to McLaughlin, which served an educational purpose first and foremost (stoner trips to see the Pink Floyd laser light show were secondary, though fun). That purpose, argues Balmer, has never been more important.
"In a post-fact world, where the fundamental principals of scientific knowledge is being undermined, public planetariums like those in New York, Chicago, L.A., (and once upon a time, Toronto) are significant standard bearers for science education and a bulwark against attempts to undermine public confidence in science."
The campaign to preserve the building has been endorsed by Docomomo (both the international and US divisions), an organization that seeks to catalogue and protect modern architecture, which has helped to bolster the cause.
Balmer has also submitted the McLaughlin Planetarium to the 2018 World Monuments Watch, a list published every two years that catalogues important cultural heritage sites under threat. Inclusion here would help to put the planned demise of the building on more people's radar.
If the broader public discussion surrounding the McLaughlin Planetarium has been mostly quiet as of late that's probably because there's been very little news about its replacement.
A year ago, U of T announced that Diller Scofidio + Renfro would work with architectsAlliance on what will be called the Centre for Civilizations and Cultures, though not designs have been publicly released as of yet.
I'd suspect that calls for the preservation of the planetarium will increase as the redevelopment process moves forward and demolition becomes an imminent threat. In the meantime, Balmer's Facebook group and petition to save the building continue to grow.
He's had some success with preservation in Toronto before, having been a leader in the successful drive to hold Ryerson accountable to its agreement to preserve and re-install the Sam the Record Man sign (which is finally supposed to happen this year). Mid-century architecture can, however, be a tough sell.
Toronto has a troubling relationship with modern buildings, which are often devalued because they're not old enough to be deemed worthy of saving. The list of important buildings that we've torn down from this period is a cultural tragedy. Many would like to save the McLaughlin Planetarium from a similar fate.
"Because Toronto is such a desirable place to live, it has undergone tremendous development pressures, pressures that have led to an acceleration in the demolition of buildings throughout the city," Balmer notes.
"This calls for a renewed focus on preserving whatâs worth keeping, while allowing for the inevitable loss of older building stock of lesser merit... McLaughlin is clearly worthy, not only for its architectural merits, but because of its significance as a public institution remembered fondly and that served a vital public service."
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