The Story Behind Toronto’s New City Hall

Have you ever wondered how Toronto got its “new” City Hall? Fifty years old last year, the iconic Toronto civic structure has become the heart of who we are and what we aspire to be.

Filmmaker Michael Kainer, in collaboration with archivist Karen Teeple, has produced a documentary, “Finn With An Oyster: The Story Behind Toronto’s New City Hall,” which tells the story. It’s a fascinating tale of backroom deals, a failed referendum, a student uprising, the world’s largest international architectural design competition, and then the choice which symbolizes the city today.

Building a new city hall that would propel Toronto into modern times was not easy. The assembly of land in the early 1960s required demolishing The Ward, an entire neighbourhood of low quality housing stock and several important historic buildings. Deciding to hold an international design competition and not “going Canadian only” upset nationalists. Selecting the vision of the young and relatively obscure Finnish architect, Viljo Revell, seemed unduly daring. Even the artwork, including Henry Moore’s sculpture The Archer for the square, provoked criticism. Nathan Phillips, Toronto’s first Jewish mayor, with his competition advisor academic Eric Arthur and architect Viljo Revell, persevered.

Once completed, the question became what to do with the old City Hall. The Eaton family, scions of the establishment department store across the street, proposed demolishing the old City Hall and building a new shopping mall directly across from Nathan Phillips Square. The proposal became a lighting rod for opposition from all those people who, in supporting the modern design of the New City Hall, had come together and learned that they had some power. They rallied to “save the Old City Hall,” were successful, and then turned their energies to “saving the downtown” from the proposed Spadina Expressway. Toronto’s “quality of life” reform movement had begun.

“Finn With an Oyster” is the fifth film produced by lawyer-turned-filmmaker Michael Kainer. The native of Regina came to Toronto with his wife Mary in the early 1970s to pursue their professional education. Michael was interested in photography and applied to Ryerson at the same time that he applied to law school. When the law school accepted him first, law became his profession.

After 30 years in practice, he began to turn his attention to planning for alternative forms of creativity in retirement. His first efforts were two short films: in 2006, “Innocence on Ice” (a co-production), and in 2008, “Succo Pomodori,” depicting the making of tomato sauce in the back lanes of Little Italy. That same year, he wrote and co-produced “Skate to Survival,” a 44-minute documentary on the harrowing life and amazing artistry of Canadian figure skating coach, Ellen Burka. That film has been widely screened on OMNI 1, at various film festivals, and on Air Canada Inflight films. In 2014, he directed and wrote “Patron Saint,” a 70-minute documentary about the Polish-Canadian psychiatrist, politician, and art patron, Janusz Dukszta, who commissioned 100 portraits by 40 of Canada’s finest artists over 60 years. That film premiered at the 2015 Reel Artists Film Festival at the TIFF/Bell Lightbox in Toronto. “Finn with an Oyster” has screened at the City of Toronto Archives, Bloor/Hot Docs Cinema, the London Ontario Museum, the Architecture+Design Film Festival in Winnipeg, and in the Toronto Arts and Letters Club Film Series. His next film will be a history of the Toronto Islands.

You can see “Finn with an Oyster” tomorrow and Sunday in the Council Chambers of the New City Hall, 100 Queen Street West. The 71-minute film will play continuously 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. as part of Doors Open Toronto weekend. I intend to catch it first thing tomorrow. Perhaps I will see you there.

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2 comments

  1. Katrina

    Hi Marion. My grandmother was one of the gang of gloved ladies who made a ring around Old City Hall by joining hands to stop its demolition. Their success did empower her to be an activist in other areas around the city. She never wore a pair of pants in her life and never went outside without gloves. She was, after all, a lady.

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