The Architects Are Here: Luminato at the Hearn Generating Plant, Toronto, Ontario
This June, Jörn Weisbrodt, the outgoing Artistic Director of Luminato, changed the script for the Toronto arts festival. Instead of holding the two-week festival’s exhibitions and performances throughout the city, Weisbrodt chose a remarkable single venue: the Hearn Generating Station in Toronto’s Eastern Portlands.
The Hearn is an enormous former electricity generating plant, first fired by coal and later by gas. Since being decommissioned in the 1990s, it has languished in semi-ruin, emptied of its equipment and scavenged for valuable scrap. Its role as a power plant has been usurped by a newer energy big-box next door.
Even in its neglected state, the Hearn has remarkable spatial power, with a turbine hall three times larger than the Tate Modern. The hall is bookended by tall ribbon windows that give the appearance of an industrial cathedral. With the original upper floor demolished, the remaining turbine bases form a procession of arches that hold up nothing but air. South of the turbine hall, the complex is a sequence of vast, interconnected vertical spaces. The dangling remains of conduit and twisted equipment mounts give a raw character to the spaces there.
To address the challenge of adapting the Hearn to the requirements of hosting a festival with art installations, live theatre and music performances, Luminato enlisted Toronto architecture and design studio PARTISANS and British theatre designers Charcoalblue to create a 1,200-seat theatre as well as exhibit spaces.
This was no small task. Given the scale and state of the space, part of it remained effectively open to the surrounding weather. The theatre in particular was an ingenious transformation. Hanging shrouds of acoustic duct liner curtained it off from the surrounding cavernous hall. Shipping containers—re-purposed into theatre boxes and sound reflectors—straddled the existing structure to create a tall room that felt connected to the space of the Hearn, despite the acoustic surround.
The deployment of additional shipping containers through the rest of the Hearn was less convincing; in these locations, the containers did not transform space so much as stand in as a shorthand for industrial chic.
Most effective was PARTISANS’ collaboration with the artist Scott McFarland to create the exhibition Trove. McFarland inserted photographs of 50 Toronto treasures—animals from the Toronto Zoo, paintings, sculptures—within a virtual Hearn-turned-art-gallery of the future, as visualized by PARTISANS and architectural graphics firm Norm Li. The treasures are melded perfectly into their imagined context, giving the appearance of having been photographed within a completed space.
The imaginary gallery fashioned by PARTISANS is a sequence of floating exhibition pods. The firm deployed smooth, white ribbons of space to hold the 50 treasures, a foil to the material weight and polychrome of the turbine hall. The site of this virtual gallery, suspended in air, artificially repaired the unfortunate removal of the majestic hall’s floor. The resulting artistic collaboration—represented in a series of perspective images mounted along the 90-metre-long north wall of the actual turbine hall—was the festival’s most evocative architectural intervention.
Whether Luminato’s new location succeeds in changing Toronto’s perceptions of the Hearn remains an open question. It has likely drawn people to the site who wouldn’t have otherwise gone. Given the current real estate market, it’s all too easy to imagine both developers and consumers awakening to the potential of this industrial corner of the city—an area already slated for re-development. With the distance between architecture and real estate becoming vanishingly small, Luminato may have succeeded in bringing more than art and architecture to this site. Hopefully, the qualities that inspired Weisbrodt to choose it in the first place will remain intact.
Javier Zeller, MRAIC, is an architect working in Toronto with Diamond Schmitt Architects.