Sirrah McLaughlin
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Sirrah McLaughlin

The McLaughlin Planetarium
It’s been thirteen years now since the Royal Ontario Museum’s McLaughlin Planetarium was shut down. The utilitarian building––half a dome unceremoniously shoved on top of a rectangular prism––was, until recently, all but forgotten, obscured by construction offices for the extremely un-utilitarian Crystal being built around the corner. When those construction offices moved out in December, however, leaving a mass of wide open space that hadn’t been wide open for several years, the Planetarium quietly re-asserted its presence, and the one big question that has circled around it since it was closed seemed as important as ever: what on earth is going to become of it?

Surrounded by the ROM and its dramatic new renovation north, and the University of Toronto’s Faculties of Law and Music south and west, the Planetarium occupies valuable––and, unsurprisingly, incredibly contentious––land in downtown Toronto. In 2005, the ROM announced a proposal to demolish the building in favour of a 46-storey condo tower (each condominium selling for no less than $3 million each) with five storeys reserved for the museum’s use. The attempt was met with enormous and near-universal public outrage––or, as the ROM’s Director William Thorsell put it when he announced that the plans would not go through, “deep and broad” opposition.
Opened in 1968 and once the stuff of star-gazing and laser lights shows of Pink Floyd and Nirvana albums, the McLaughlin Planetarium was closed in 1995, shuttered because of provincial budget cuts under the reign of Mike Harris, and last hosted the public in 2002 for a travelling Lord of the Rings exhibition. Outside, everything about the planetarium now suggests abandonment: Dumpsters, pylons, a huge pile of snow, and construction offices have been accumulating again outside since the last construction offices moved out. The front doors are locked. The metallic letters announcing “McLaughlin Planetarium” on its façade are long gone. The pure white dome is now off-white, with gray across it and orange crust creeping up from its base.
Inside, however, the McLaughlin Planetarium is anything but abandoned. Though it takes a long, winding route up and down stairs and an elevator to get inside it, much of the planetarium’s 30,000 square feet of space serves as makeshift offices for parts or all of the ROM’s marketing, design, exhibitions, and travelling exhibitions departments. The space is wildly impractical for what it is now used for––only one room, the former front entrance, gets any natural light, and only then from the two sets of four glass doors facing out to the street––the recolonization serving as a perfect example of how to repurpose utilitarian simplicity into cruel and unusual punishment.
The gutted theatre itself (click here to view Tony Makepeace’s panorama of the space) serves as a dimly-lit office for two collection technicians and storage space for 25,000 objects from the ROM’s Canadian and European collections, moved in 2000 from the Sigmund Samuel Building at U of T. Furniture, armory, paintings, and decorative objects ranging from wind vanes to Noah’s ark figurines fill the room in shelves from bottom to top (so high up, in fact, that the technicians can’t get to all of the artifacts because of workplace safety regulations).
Demolition of the McLaughlin Planetarium and construction of something else in its place seems both necessary and inevitable. Francisco Alvarez, the ROM’s Director of Communications, told Torontoist that the ROM hopes to “re-develop the site” with the museum’s selected development partner, George Friedmann of the Windsor Arms Hotel Corporation. “While there is no architect selected yet or indeed any design,” Alvarez said, “the result will likely be a mixed use building combining public use (including 30,000 square feet for the ROM [the current size of the building], potentially another attraction or institution) plus private sector use, most likely residential.” It’s clear, as well, that a small building is not what the ROM wants; as Alvarez told us during our tour, “the only direction to go is up.” The proceeds from such a project would go towards the Renaissance ROM project, which would see ten more galleries in the non-Crystal part of the museum redone by 2010.
In other words, what the ROM seems to want for a new project is something not entirely dissimilar to the project that drew such scorn three years ago. Nonetheless, Alvarez is insistent (as much as the ROM’s FAQ page is) about the role that the public will have in shaping that new building, whatever form it takes. “We are consulting with the City, the University of Toronto, and local residents associations as this rolls out,” Alvarez says.
As impractical as it is now, the Planetarium still stands on hallowed ground, and it is hard to imagine that another fight over its future is not on the horizon. Writing of the planetarium in The Globe and Mail in May 2007, on the heels of renewed fear over its demolition and redevelopment, John Bentley Mays wrote that “the ROM skyscraper, if they decide to put one up, must be brilliant. We should be satisfied with nothing less.” Nothing less than brilliance is not just one side of the argument; it seems to be the edict for whatever will take the place of the dead planetarium. And while the ROM managed to pull off brilliance once on its north side, it’ll be a tall order to make it happen in the south.
Photos by David Topping.