RENAISSANCE CITY: The billion-dollar baby
THE IDEA OF CREATING SOMETHING VITAL SEEMED DOOMED AT EVERY TURN. NOW, ON THE EVE OF A NEW BEGINNING, IT'S CLEAR THE REAL WORK HAS ONLY JUST BEGUN
opera house $119m
Six days a week for the past two years, Ted Ollmann, 62, a crane operator with a titanium knee, has begun his 4:30 a.m. climb up a yellow Liebherr hammerhead crane at the Royal Ontario Museum construction site. Once in the cab, 20 storeys above Toronto's Bloor Street, Ollmann lifts steel beams and panels, swings them into place and lowers them to waiting workmen. He's become a nameless hero to admirers in the Park Hyatt roof bar over the way. "We've seen him go up in the winter," says bartender Cordell Barker. "It's gotta be brutal."
But there are compensations -- such as Ollmann's view of the sun rising over his strenuously striving city, now in the midst of an unprecedented cultural building boom. Until it was blocked by new buildings, he had a long view of the Ontario College of Art and Design's Dalmatian-spotted addition on stilts (he helped build that one) and of the Art Gallery of Ontario, its old face recently torn off to make way for architect Frank Gehry's billowing new design. To his right, he has a perfect bird's-eye view of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art's messy renovation, and to his left, the even bigger mess -- open wound, really -- of the Royal Conservatory of Music's reconstruction site.
"I've worked in Iran, Algeria, Singapore, on the rigs in the Beaufort Sea," Ollmann says. "Toronto is unique." There's so much building going on, he must stay in radio contact with the RCM crane next door lest they swing into one another's area. "I still do have anxious moments."
So does Toronto. So do the private donors, and the federal and provincial governments that have together poured almost $900-million into the crane-shadowed pits that pockmark Canada's largest city. A generation ago, an astonished Toronto was energized when its multicultural neighbourhoods won favour from international urban thinkers such as Jane Jacobs. Then, for 30 years, the city the rest of Canada loves to hate cruised back into mediocrity. Today, it is regaining a sense of its own singular potential. In once derelict, now glamorous industrial lofts and hotels, indie rockers talk with hip architects and earnest young public-space activists about books like uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto and debate whether the term "Torontopia" has gone too far in "fetishizing" the city's newfound energy.
Does it matter that Philistine Hogtown, the wannabe New York and butt of Montrealers' jokes, may be directing too much money and attention to big, showy projects rather than the little studios and open stages, the cultural petri dishes where real art is born? Does it matter that the city's efforts are driven less by aesthetic passion than by hunger for money, prestige and power? Probably not: All this could be said of Lorenzo de Medici and his patronage of Leonardo and Michelangelo in 15th-century Florence.
And the city's image is shifting, across Canada and abroad. "What's going on in Toronto, that's the event of the century," says Pierre Théberge, director of Ottawa's National Gallery of Canada. He predicts that Toronto's cultural build will energize communities across Canada. "In Montreal, people are pointing to Toronto and saying, 'What are we doing?!?' " The image change is transatlantic. "Toronto is a lively global city, just like Milan," is the opinion of Fabio Terragni, CEO of the Milano Metropoli development agency, which is organizing an exhibition of Toronto architectural models at the Palazzo Reale (and an exchange exhibit of Milanese projects at Toronto's Design Exchange). Terragni sees Toronto as "a city of architecture, biotechology, media -- and many Italians."
This is balm to a Canadian city that has, post-SARS and post-9/11, seen its tourism revenues march down a steep stair. And such comments are a veritable steroid injection for the capital city of a province with a rusting manufacturing base, a city trying to rebrand itself with "creative renewal" so that entrepreneurial and innovative talent "will be attracted to living here," in the words of Ilse Treurnicht, CEO of the city's Medical and Related Sciences Centre. At MaRS, new-media designers work with biotechnologists to make images of, say, what drugs do to the body. "Innovation is broader than science and technology. It's about creativity in the broadest context."
The trouble is, a mob of other cities is also building ambitious cultural projects to chase the same high-spending tourists and high-tech talent. Since Frank Gehry's 1997 Guggenheim Bilbao Museum in Spain came to symbolize the power of cultural icons to revitalize urban economies, U.S. museums have invested more than $5-billion to build or expand; Boston's Museum of Fine Arts remake will cost roughly twice as much (about $500-million) as any single Toronto project. In Europe, Vienna has redeveloped an inner-city neighbourhood, the MuseumsQuartier; Valencia, Spain, is building a district called the City of Arts and Sciences.
"Will visitors from the United Kingdom come to Toronto over Spain? Unlikely," says Jon Ladd, CEO of the British Urban Regeneration Association. "Where I think Toronto will be okay is, you have a critical mass of attractions, venues, activities, iconic buildings, a city image. Constructing these buildings must not be a one-off. Culture must be part of the city's fabric. Otherwise, you'll have white elephants on your hands."
U.S. economist and urban philosopher Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, concurs: "If you're up against New York and London, you've got to play in the big leagues. It makes sense to invest in institutions with cachet, architecture with panache. The mistake would be to put big institutions before actual artists. The advantage Toronto has is that it's open -- to people from all over the world -- and it's affordable."
It was to rebrand Toronto in this way -- and not because of embarrassment over warren-like, vermin-infested facilities at the old National Ballet School, or clanking rads and water dripping down the walls of the Royal Conservatory of Music, or the shameful waste of museum and art collections stored away for want of exhibition space, or the public's frustration with pitiful acoustics and sightlines -- that one unlikely man laid the foundation for Toronto's new direction.
Former Ontario Conservative premier Mike Harris, is, by his own admission, "not an opera fan. And I confess to going to more hockey than ballet." Yet, despite the Harris record for cuts to the National Ballet School and the Ontario Arts Council, Toronto's cultural construction projects are sometimes called "the houses that Mike built."
Sitting in his office at the Toronto law firm Goodmans, where he's a rainmaking senior business adviser, a genial Harris suggests that he was in part motivated by what might be termed a minor identity crisis. "When I went abroad as premier of Ontario, people didn't know Ontario. They knew Toronto," he marvels. "It was apparent to me that Toronto had to be a world-class city."
Far from being "the ogre from North Bay," says David Lindsay, Harris's former principal secretary, the premier early on backed the idea that culture could play a catalytic role in Toronto's economy. Lindsay recalls a day in August, 1995, when philanthropist Joey Tanenbaum turned up in the premier's office bearing documents showing downtown land then occupied by a provincial court building. Tanenbaum said this was just the place for a new ballet-opera house. "I was there," Lindsay says. "Harris got it."
Warning Tanenbaum that he could not hand over $30-million worth of land even as he was cutting welfare, Harris had Lindsay craft a deal that would transfer the land to the Canadian Opera Company for $4-million in cash, plus a $12-million vendor take-back mortgage (the deal was in effect sealed with a wink, as no one expected the COC to pay off the mortgage in a hurry).
But Harris's support was to prove complex. Growing up in North Bay, he'd seen his father's ski-hill business trying to compete with a nearby hill operator who had a government grant. Over time, Harris would play two roles in this story: He would champion iconic projects such as the refurbished Art Gallery of Ontario -- but he'd reveal a deep ambivalence about grants, on principle.
Over the next few years, rich, powerful men -- from former lieutenant-governor Hal Jackman (a long-time champion of a ballet-opera house) to billionaire Ken Thomson (then seeking a home for his Canadian and European art collections) -- assured Harris that however the new venues were paid for, a critical mass of cultural attractions was good for everyone. By 1998, Thomson was championing both an art-gallery expansion and a plan to remake Roy Thomson Hall, which suffered not only from chilly acoustics, but also poor flows of human traffic and air currents that blew away musicians' music.
Harris was listening. "Within the Toronto community, there was the will and the wherewithal," he says. "We just had to get off the little projects and into the keystone projects." The collapse in 1998 of Garth Drabinsky's Livent Inc., North America's biggest theatre producer in the 1990s, and the darkening of Toronto theatre houses that had lured U.S. tourists across the border, made that need more urgent. In 1999, the Harris government launched the SuperBuild Growth Fund, with Lindsay as CEO, to leverage public-private partnerships for the rebuilding of infrastructure. SuperBuild would set aside about $300-million for "tourism attractions."
At last a city began to stir. Charles Cutts, CEO at Roy Thomson Hall, began to order the wood and steel that would change the sound of his building. In 2000, the National Ballet School bought downtown land for an expanded school. The Royal Ontario Museum hired a new director, former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief William Thorsell, luring him with the promise of presiding over a radical architectural redesign.
Planning a five-storey addition and a new concert hall, Royal Conservatory director Peter Simon launched what he calls "personal commando raids" to win provincial and federal support (it helped that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's wife Aline, a conservatory piano student, is a fan of the RCM's international Learning Through the Arts program). "There were rumours about a SuperBuild," says Simon. "Suddenly, it was a case of sharpen your pencils, get your board ready, focus your program."
But 2000 was also the year six people died and 1,000 fell ill from tainted water in the Southwestern Ontario town of Walkerton. No politician would announce a new museum while public health was in jeopardy. Months passed. Then, in the fall of 2000, anticipating a spring election, Ottawa pushed matters forward by announcing its own national infrastructure program. Soon David Collenette, then regional minister for the Greater Toronto Area, was brandishing federal offers of funding.
For the Ontario Tories, this was a political trap. While they were trying to clean up tainted water, "The feds kept playing a game," says Lindsay. "They'd say, 'We said yes to your project, it's the province that's holding you up!' " As the other applicants waited anxiously, Roy Thomson Hall's SuperBuild bid was approved in 2001 and work began. But early in 2002, civil servants at Queen's Park and in Ottawa were still reviewing $1-billion worth of other applications. The trouble was, that was far more than Ontario could afford to approve. "With all due respect to the feds, they said yes to everything, knowing that there was only $300-million [available] from us," says Harris. "So they set us up to be the bad guys."
Certainly Harris, sire of SuperBuild, was being called a bad guy. Robert Sirman, administrative director of the National Ballet School, was outraged to learn that his school failed to meet SuperBuild's definition of "tourism attraction." On March 6, 2002, one of the country's greatest dancers fired off an open letter to the Prime Minister begging for support for the school. "It was just a strategy Bob Sirman and I concocted in a moment of desperation," says Karen Kain. For Collenette up in Ottawa, the well-publicized letter was crucial: "It generated a lot of publicity. It helped me stare down the province."
The opera-house project had also run aground. The problem was Harris's concern that the Canadian Opera Company was getting too sweet a deal (what was now $36-million worth of land, in exchange for $4-million and an easygoing mortgage). The COC was told it would have to give Ontario back $11-million in cash. When Collenette called Harris to sort things out, "He didn't mince words. He said, 'David, we're gonna fund the AGO and the ROM, they're provincial. The opera house is a federal project, a Liberal project. That's the way it's gonna be.' " And the ballet school was still out of the running.
When Collenette reported all this to his furious Toronto caucus, he says they agreed that the feds should threaten to pull out unless Ontario capitulated. That night, Collenette called museum and gallery directors at home to assure them that the withdrawal was a bluff. He also called Thomson. "I was nervous about that. Here was a guy who had put in millions, millions. . . . I said, 'Ken, I've got bad news. As regional minister I am walking away from the deal because Mike Harris says the province will just fund certain things and the deal doesn't include the ballet school.' Ken said, 'David, I trust you.' He understood this was a strategy."
Throughout the spring of 2002, the media buzzed with reports that the infrastructure deals were coming undone. As Ontario politicians accused Ottawa of making "more sudden moves than Baryshnikov," federal politicians gambled that all could be settled once Harris retired. On March 19, just before Harris departed the premier's office, he brandished his fist at Ottawa once more. Summoning the heads of the opera, the AGO and the ROM to his office, he promised that Ontario would fund their projects -- and then delivered the news to journalists waiting outside the door. Just hours after this unilateral announcement, Collenette countered by matching federal funds for four of the six projects -- the National Ballet School, the Royal Conservatory, the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art and the opera house, now known as the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts -- excluding the AGO and the ROM. The brinksmanship subsided only after Ernie Eves, who replaced Harris as Ontario premier, appointed a new culture minister, David Tsubouchi.
Cousin of Canada's current culture minister, Bev Oda, the bearded Tsubouchi has the build of a wrestler. In fact, he's a published poet and something of a diplomat. "We had two significant roadblocks with the feds: the opera house and the ballet school," he says, beaming sweet reason across the desk of his downtown law office. He was never bothered that Ontario's real-estate contribution to the opera house was more valuable than Ottawa's $25-million in funding. Demanding cash back from the COC made no sense: Who would give money to the building if the donor knew the funds would return to Queen's Park? "I convinced my colleagues to treat the two amounts as equal," he shrugs. They canned the mortgage scheme.
"The second big hang-up was that the Ballet School didn't fit into our definition of cultural tourism," says Tsubouchi. "So I said, 'Who defined cultural tourism?' My colleagues said 'We did.' So I said, 'Let's redefine it.' "
In April, Tsubouchi went to the Stratford Festival to attend a gala performance. In the VIP box next to him sat Collenette. At intermission, the two men began to negotiate. The play, incidentally, was All's Well That Ends Well.
On May 31, 2002, Alexandra Montgomery, director of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art (its $20-million renovation makes it the smallest of the projects) was on a museum-sponsored trip to Rome. "When we got to our hotel, the phone was ringing and ringing," she recalls. On answering it, she learned that over in Toronto, at Roy Thomson Hall (where the $24-million enhancement project was almost complete) Jean Chrétien and Ernie Eves had just announced that public money would flow to six Toronto projects. Montgomery's internationally admired facility (40 per cent of its visitors come from abroad) could expand and upgrade its exhibition space. Across Toronto, cranes could swing, earth-movers chug into action and fundraising professionals stalk arts patrons for hundreds of millions in donations to bring those projects to completion.
As Montgomery listened, there was a commotion in the street. By chance, the Pope was paying his traditional annual visit to Santa Maria Maggiore, a nearby Roman basilica. "What an extraordinary evening," she says. "Crowds of people, and the Pope! We had the phone call and then this . . . visitation. We felt blessed."
The story is far from over. Prime Minister Steven Harper's government may not come through with a final $49-million in completion funds in the forthcoming federal budget. The Royal Conservatory, the ROM and the AGO are still half-raw construction sites, and those who visit them do so under hard hats.
"On a sunny day," says Michael Mahoney, the AGO's senior project manager of construction, "this will be incredible, a cascade of natural light." He gestures to a rubble-filled courtyard that looks more like Baghdad than Toronto. "Over there, a gallery will house Ken Thomson's model ship collection." He steps across a trough of gravel and rusty cable. "For us, these projects are important for the country. It's been a struggle, but exciting."
But ahead, there's only more struggle. Tourists are fickle. Each night, Toronto impresarios already face 250,000 non-cinema seats (from sports arenas to small theatres). The new concert-hall projects -- not only the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and the conservatory's Michael and Sonja Koerner Concert Hall, but also new spaces at the Young Centre in the Distillery District, at York University and even in Brampton, Ont. -- will add thousands more. Who will fill them? Who will buy tickets to the new museums and art galleries?
Icons can lose their drawing power. The "Bilbao effect" is fading in Bilbao itself as attendance at Gehry's Guggenheim is starting to decline. And besides, the Spanish city's renaissance was never based on one museum alone, but was born amid massive investment in airports and subways designed by international architects -- "something Toronto might learn from," says Graeme Evans, director of the Cities Institute at London Metropolitan University.
And as for Toronto's other great ambition, to lure and keep innovative talent: "Much now rests on a strategy that can incorporate high-arts facilities with artist-led and creative industries and community-based development," notes Evans. He thinks the city's real hopes lie with projects such as MaRS, the arts, tech and biomedical complex -- and with efforts such as those of Artscape, a non-profit planning and consulting firm that assembles studio and high-tech startup space and affordable housing in heritage sites such as Toronto's Liberty Village.
Artscape's CEO Tim Jones works in a rehabilitated warehouse in Liberty Village, a Victorian streetscape now home to TV companies and recording studios. "The iconic projects create buzz," says Jones. "But it's a huge mistake to think that a cultural renaissance is built on just big projects. The key is how we continue the momentum."
And how does that work? Looking across at the ROM construction site from the Park Hyatt roof bar, Ted Ollmann tries to recall the last time he actually visited the Royal Ontario Museum. It was probably 30 years ago, he guesses. A King Tut exhibit. "What really got me was I was looking at a mummy and the holes in the ear lobes, for the earrings, were so big. That blew me away."
Interestingly, King Tut was at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1976, not at the ROM. Ollmann shrugs. The building is irrelevant. What he recalls is the content, the human dimension, those ear lobes. And if the people at the helm of Toronto's renaissance don't have ears for that simple message -- it's not about buildings, it's about human content -- then all this effort may yet have been in vain.