Mies’ Movie House

Text Andrea Picard

In June of 2006, three of Toronto’s historic and beloved repertory cinemas, the Royal Cinema on College Street, the Revue on Roncesvalles Street and the Kingsway on Queen Street East, all belonging to the well-intentioned but chugging Festival chain, will close their doors permanently unless they are suddenly saved by a moneyed movie-lover. Chances are, if the theatres are purchased, the cinemas will undergo reincarnations as nightclubs, VIP lounges, concert halls or some such, as was the case with both the Eglinton Theatre and the York Theatre further uptown. The first to go was the University, with its proscenium ruins left for years to mark its unfortunate passing, now replaced by a host of upscale retail shops on the tony strip of Bloor Street West. A fervent film-going city, with over 100 annual film festivals and an internationally renowned cinemathque, Toronto has, over the years, seen its old cinemas sold, converted, demolished (the tragic end to the Uptown theatre was a particularly sour note that cemented the notion–true or otherwise–that developers are unscrupulous): in short, disappear despite the staggering rise of screening programs and film-related activities and celebrations.

Rewind 40 years ago when mini-skirted women with lacquered bobs were out on the town with dates in tow watching Audrey Hepburn seduce and Elizabeth Taylor smoulder onscreen in the newly opened Toronto Dominion Centre cinema designed by Modernist master Mies van der Rohe. Wait Until Dark and Reflections in a Golden Eye were the first films shown in the 690-seat theatre, which opened in October of 1967 and which was created as part of the concourse level of the sleek banking towers at the corner of Bay and Wellington Streets. The cinema had a subtle grade and impressive width, its clean lines characteristic of the architect’s elegant and precise vocabulary. Simple but sharp, the theatre was “without noodles,” Mies might have said. The lobby area with its original Barcelona chairs and stated minimalism recalled the zen-like foyer of Mies’ Lake Shore Drive apartment buildings (1948-51) in Chicago. Instead of a lake view, however, the TD Centre film screen provided an endless expanse for contemplation. (Here, an evocation of Hiroshi Sugimoto must be indulged, the image of Mies’ theatre functioning as a composite of the Japanese photographer’s sublime seascape and cinema series). The cinema was used for gala events such as the Canadian Film Awards, now the Genies. The Festival of Festivals, as the Toronto International Film Festival was then known, used it as a premier venue for some of its retrospectives and directors’ spotlights. But mostly, it was a first-run house.

In 1982, a mere 15 years after its momentous inauguration, the cinema closed, its space repatriated to more bank-like functions for storage and offices. Today it is all but forgotten, while the Toronto Dominion Centre remains one of Toronto’s major architectural achievements. The only other cinema designed by Mies van der Rohe is one that was not built during his lifetime. The theatre, located within the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, was completed in 1974 based on designs by Mies and stands proudly as a heritage site. It was restored and renovated in 2000 and is the current home of the cinemathque-like screening program run out of the Museum. An example of what could have been…

On the eve of yet another round of cinema closures in Toronto, it seems only fitting to resurrect one whose iconic status should have been saved from the fate of decay, rampant expansion and a nearsighted lack of vision. As the numerous festivals scramble, each and every year, to find an appropriate venue to present their film events, the irony of the Festival chain closure makes clear Toronto’s lack of a preservation agenda and its insatiable lust for building anew. There is no doubt that Mies’ cinema could and would have been used today, had it been saved. Toronto audiences, we know, have not given up on cinema-going, despite the venerable Criterion Collection of films available on DVD.

Andra Picard is a film curator at Cinemathque Ontario and the Toronto International Film Festival. She writes a quarterly FILM/ART column for Cinema Scope magazine.