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Placemaking: Ontario Science Centre

How the Space Age came to Don Mills.

Placemaking tells the stories behind the buildings that define the GTA, beyond the downtown core.

Photo by {a href=http://www.flickr.com/photos/trevorh/463586304/sizes/z/in/photostream/}Trevor Haldenby{/a} from the {a href=http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Typewritten on six carefully preserved sheets of Ontario Science Centre letterhead is a press release dated September 27, 1969. “Using a Quasar radio signal from the far reaches of space coupled with a laser beam,” it says, “Ontario Premier John Robarts today officially opened the new $30 million Ontario Science Centre in Don Mills.” Two months after humans had set first footprints on the moon, Ontario was getting its own taste of space-age excitement. Robarts predicted that the complex would have more impact during the century to come than any other single project undertaken in Canada at the time.

While talk of building a science centre began as early as 1961, planning began in earnest three years later, when architect Raymond Moriyama was recruited to design the space, which he envisioned as a cluster of three connected buildings set to mimic the curves of the Don River ravine behind it. It was decided that the centre would open as a part of Toronto’s 1967 celebrations of the Canadian Centennial. Its name would be the Centennial Centre of Science and Technology.

But the Centennial tie-in was not to be. As Minister of Tourism and Information James A.C. Auld would note in his statement at the centre’s official opening, two years later than had been planned:

I have lived intimately with the Science Centre for more than five years—I might say five difficult years of conception and creation, five years of invention and, to me personally, years of some emotion, for nothing seemed to come with real ease. Yet I can only regard them as five years of satisfaction because of what we have today.

Photo by {a href=http://www.flickr.com/photos/casmium/}casmium{/a} from the {a href=http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

“What we have today” was one of the first interactive science museums in all of North America. And, of course, there was also the previously-mentioned Quasar signal, received by a radio telescope at the National Research Council at Lake Traverse and transmitted to the centre via Ottawa “through a special landline and microwave hookup” at the moment of opening. This was, for the time, a glimpse into the future.

But, amidst the hubbub surrounding Quasars and pioneering exhibition models was the site itself: 20 acres of densely-wooded ravine land flanked by the 180-acre Ernest Thompson Seton park, deemed “a perfect compliment” to the “mind-catching” exhibits within the centre. As the opening’s exuberant—and oh-so-lengthy—press release would proclaim: “Outdoor and indoor patios and rest areas provide a welcome break from the physical and mental demands of the exhibit halls.”

Either in spite of this nature-touting romanticism or as a result of it, the buildings themselves ended up as streamlined edifices of textured concrete—an “attractive and practical finish,” as the opening’s promotional notes would attest, that would compliment the centre’s rustic surroundings. Escalators connecting the two main buildings appear to “flow down the side of [the site's] 90-foot hill” like a modern architectural waterfall—a vision fit for lasers, Quasars, and trees alike.

Correction, March 7, 2012: The opening of the Ontario Science Centre occurred two months after the moon landing, not two months before. The correction has been made.

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