The R.L. Hearn Generating Station in 2004. The meadow in the foreground, which had grown up on the contaminated remains of the station's coal pile, has since been replaced by the Portlands Energy Centre, a natural gas-fired generating station completed in 2008.

Demolition Years: Toronto's R.L. Hearn Generating Station

Michael Cook

Back on December 14th, Peter Kuitenbrouwer of the National Post broke the story that the R.L. Hearn thermal generating station in Toronto's portlands was under demolition threat. The news has been picked up elsewhere, was met with quick alarm by the city's heritage community (which had been unable to stop the callous and suspiciously-timed demolition of the Downsview Airport hangars at this time last year), and led city council at its December session to "reaffirm the City's interest in preserving" the building. Paul Vaughan, spokesman for the building's leasee, Studios of America, says the company on their part would prefer to see the building reused for something like the stacked-ice rink proposal, and only filed for demolition after receiving no response to their inquiries with the city.

All of this sudden attention and debate is somewhat late, since the Hearn station has been under active demolition since Studios of America leased it from Ontario Power Generation in 2002. While the company has continued to scrap and gut the building's interior, their original plan—to convert the station's massive internal spaces into a series of modern soundstages for film and television production—has fallen by the wayside as currency woes and other challenges have put a damper on Toronto's movie industry. While a few film shoots have occurred inside the building, including Frequency (2000, shot several years before SoA moved in) and the 2006 ABC television production The Path to 9/11 (which made use of the demolition carnage to serve as the bombed out parkade of the World Trade Centre in 1993), for long periods the place has been left idle save for intermittent demolition activity.

Speaking to NOW Magazine's Enzo Di Matteo, Vaughan admits the awful truth of the matter: the company has been scrapping "non-structural steel" from the plant to meet their lease payments. In this case, 'non-structural steel' means the station's massive turbines, boilers, ductwork, and all the rest of its thermal generating equipment—the machinery that made this enormous structure a functional place to begin with— along with much of the flooring from the building's upper levels. The iconic Parsons generators that once sent 1200 MW of electricity coursing forth to meet GTA demand were scrapped by Studios of America's contractors in 2006-2007.

Hearn Generating Station turbine hall, 2010. (Photograph from flickr, by Inventor_77)

Images of Demolition

While media coverage has drawn on the far more accessible voices of internationally-known photographers like Dan Dubowitz, the main reason the station has remained on anyone's map (including Dubowitz's) has been its unceasing photography by Toronto's 'urban exploration' community, successive generations of whom have kept scenes from the station popping up on their forums, as well as on websites like flickr and from there into the feeds used by BlogTO and Torontoist. This hasn't been a uniformly positive thing—in 2008 a 26-year-old man visiting Hearn died after a fall inside the facility, and after tens of thousands of photographs we might ask what people feel they are accomplishing in continuing to visit and photograph the same spaces again and again—but it has made the Hearn station one of the most photographed places in Toronto, a site of transgressive tourism for those willing to hop the fence and brave a variety of unprotected fall hazards and the possibility of an infrequent security patrol. Moreover, all this attention has made a debate over the plant's demolition more likely.

Christopher Hume, architecture columnist for the Toronto Star, has weighed in this week, likening the Hearn as others have done to London's Bankside Power Station (now the Tate Modern art gallery) as well as successful (though much smaller scale) local industrial reuse projects like Evergreen's rehabilitation of the Don Valley Brickworks site, Artscape's Wychwood Barns, and the Distillery District. It's a conversation that needs to be had, though I think we need to be plain about what's at stake here. As detailed above, the generating equipment that might have made this building a real heritage property has been removed by the leasee over the last decade, scrapped to meet their lease payments to Ontario Power Generation (the institution responsible for scrapping most of the remaining historic generating equipment at Niagara Falls during this same period). What we are left with is a so-called 'late-deco' 1950s red brick and concrete structure whose most remarkable feature, and the paramount reason for keeping it, is its simple enormity.

What is so transfixing about this building, the factor that has drawn such legions of flickerites and urbexers and which now calls upon the city's architectural and heritage communities, is the dream that such an enormous hollow exists at the foot of Toronto. The Hearn station sits nestled in the forsaken lands we clawed away from the Ashbridges Bay marshes a century ago and then left largely fallow when the city's industrial future failed to materialize in the way the Port Authority and city boosters once thought it would. Since the 1980s, these lands have been brought back into the city's consciousness even though soil contamination, power generation (current and abandoned) and the wafting odours of the sprawling Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant to the east have kept them a no-go zone for redevelopment more intensive than the new big box retail at Lakeshore and Leslie. What has happened is that the still-fragmentary Waterfront Trail, renewed summer usage of Cherry Beach, and the rise of the Leslie Spit landfill site (known officially as Tommy Thompson Park) as a leisure destination have come together to make this area a favoured weekend destination for city residents. And amid the cycling trails and picnickers stands the Hearn Generating Station, the great cathedral Toronto has never had.

While the needless sacrifice of the plant's internal equipment (given Studios of America's failure to follow-through on their redevelopment plans) is deplorable, the fact remains that this indiscriminate demolition has been largely responsible for creating the space that exists today, the one that now demands reuse rather than destruction. It is this massive volume, 23 million cubic feet according to Hume, that demands reuse. The only thing like it in Toronto is the Rogers Centre (actually about double Hearn's volume), but the space of what we used to call the SkyDome is not only so commodified that it can usually only be experienced as a ticket-purchasing spectator, but as all stadiums are it is oriented towards the on-field action, so that the best that can be said about it (especially in that poorly-designed white elephant cavern beneath the dome) is that that space is the obstacle separating the spectator from the action. The space at Hearn right now is thoroughly different; accessible, democratic, it is the kind of void that we can inhabit and measure ourselves against.

Towards a responsible debate about reuse

Having just been through top-flight architectural renovations of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum, and having failed to fund and build the long-sought Toronto Museum that would have been so appropriately situated in the much more modest Canada Malting complex at the opposite end of the harbour, as a city we need to be honest about what we need this building for and about what we can conceivably put there. We don't have a Tait Modern to stuff into the Hearn's internal spaces (three times the size of the facility in London!). We do have this Portlands ice rink/recreation complex that has been kicking around through various iterations and whose current expensive, stacked design is unlikely to survive the new Ford administration at City Hall. That's probably a reasonable reuse for the building, especially given how our recreation-dominated use of the surrounding precinct has evolved over the last ten or fifteen years, and we can hope that clever architects would be able to work out the insertion of those rinks in a way that retains the experienced emptiness that makes this building so exciting and essential to Toronto. Moreover, a rink complex or other similar use (and hopefully we could put more than hockey into this building) would preserve the Hearn as a massive space for all of us—not for professional athletes, nor privileged conference attendees, nor for the rarefied air of your typical art museum—but for everyone involved in Toronto's recreational sports communities, which might as well be all of us. Connected to a variety of other adjacent recreational facilities, including not only the Waterfront and Leslie Spit trails but also the new soccer facilities near Cherry Beach and the sports fields and skateboard park at Coxwell and Lakeshore, it starts to make even more sense.

The Hearn station is a building that needs saving not for its past, but for what it means to the city's present. Its 1950s vintage was never going to be particularly compelling to our community, and certainly not after the engineering heritage embedded in its physical machinery was scrapped and dumped without comment or debate over the last eight years. What we are left with is a structure of substance—not the disposable steel sheds that now enclose suburban manufacturies and contemporary electrical generators like the neighbouring Portlands Energy Centre—and the inspiring, intoxicating emptiness it contains. In a city where life is confined increasingly to 500-square-foot condo suites, the kind of space enclosed in the Hearn power station is both a priceless artifact and an exceptionally valuable inheritance, even if we haven't quite figured out how to value and reuse it yet. It would be a shameful act to demolish this building and throw away the chance to retain a space whose size and impact will never be reproduced in Toronto.

What follows is a gallery of photographs I shot in the Hearn Generating Station back in 2004, before internal demolition had progressed to the point it has reached today. For contemporary views of the Hearn's incredible emptiness, consult flickr.

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Michael Cook is available to speak to your organization about infrastructure history, lost creeks, current conditions, and opportunities for change in our management of and communication about urban watersheds, and to work with teams proposing or implementing such change. Get in touch.