#TurnOnTheHearn: The Build

How can we build something like this in just 3.5 weeks, you will ask? 98% of what we need to create the largest cultural and community centre in the world is already there. We just had to add the last 2%.

May 30, 2016 | BY: Jorn Weisbrodt

The Pyramids were not built in a week, the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece in Barcelona, and the cathedral in Cologne are still not finished, “Germania”, “The Tower of Babel”, “Tatlin’s Tower”, “DisneySea” (don’t tell your kids) were never built, Toronto’s Harbour City or Buckminster Fuller’s Project Toronto never realized. But we are building Luminato Festival’s 2016 venue in the Hearn Generating Station in 3.5 weeks and started on May 16. We are transforming The Hearn into the largest cultural and community centre in the world — a temporary transformation but a total one.


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Jorn Weisbrodt. Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

A lot has happened since May 16. The good news is: we are on schedule! It is absolutely thrilling to go down to the Portlands every day which is what I am doing to see the progress. Everyone is dressed in PPE gear (personal protetction equipment). The orange reflective vests that are part of our safety requirements for the crew look amazing in that vast building that oscillates in all shades of grey, like a black and white reproduction of a Monet painting.


Photo by Jorn Weisbrodt.
Photo by Jorn Weisbrodt.

Shipping containers have been maneuvered and stacked by blue cranes, acoustic panels are raised throughout the building like sails of the grandest of tall ships, lighting rigs are suspended from the 130 foot high ceiling to accommodate hundreds of theatre lights that will shed their light on scenes of triumph, defeat, murder, passion, friendship, humility and so much more in the The James Plays. Audience seating is being brought in, decking installed that rises higher and higher so that audiences have the perfect view onto a stage where there has never been a stage before, but where gigantic boilers used to sit, heated up by tons of coal to turn monumental turbines to produce power for a growing city.


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

The Hearn Generating Station was a peaking plant, which means that it produced energy and was fired up only at peak hours: in the mornings when people woke up and made breakfast and in the evenings when electricity powered the achievements of the modern lifestyle – TVs, radios, stereo systems, and nowadays, computers, and X Boxes (although by the time those came around the Hearn was already taken off the grid). Even when it was built as a coal firing power plant, it was already outdated so it is not a surprise that it was taken off the grid in the early 80s after a brief conversion to the slightly cleaner gas.


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

It occurred to me that Luminato Festival is like like a peaking plant as well. We condense our action into performances and happenings. We are focusing creative energy to bring people together. A recent study, by the way, showed that going to the theatre is the greenest activity you can do. The energy it takes to travel to a theatre, to light up the stage, and to open a venue  is still less than if everyone stayed at home and surfed the internet or watched TV. Congregating as a community in a cultural experience is still the most responsible thing to do.


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

Security fencing is going up all around in the building. Stairs are being put in place to reach the Jackman Gallery on top of the concrete pillars that held the turbines in place in the vast turbine hall which is twice the size of Tate London’s Turbine Hall. That gallery, 960 feet long, is going to be the longest and largest columnless gallery space in the world showcasing Scott McFarland’s project “Trove – A View of Toronto in 50 of its Treasures”. The control room, where Fred Morin and John Bil are building their dream of a French Bistro called “Le Pavillon”, has been cleaned up and is ready for its transformation.


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

The Hearn Theatre (home to the James Plays, June 16 to 26) will hold 1,200 people; the Music Stage can hold 5,000 people standing (for Unsound Toronto, June 10 and 11), 2,000 seated for Rufus Wainwright’s concert Rufus does Judy (June 23 and 24) and 1,000 seated for  the Holy Body Tattoo’s dance piece monumental (June 14 and 15) with live music by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the same for Tafelmusik’s concert, a bit more for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven’s 5th in that space. 6,000 people will be able to be in the Hearn at any given time. There will be a beer garden outside, with food and drink by Parts and Labour, sculptures will be exhibited outside, and more than 20 other cultural partners from Toronto are spread out in the space time continuum that is the 10th anniversary of the Luminato Festival at the Hearn Generating Station. We are even creating a parkour workout studio within the space and will use the smokestack as the highest industrial basejumping platform in Canada. Adventure and sports meet culture!


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

How can we build something like this in just 3.5 weeks, you will ask? If we had to start from scratch, it would be impossible and it would take probably decades and might suffer the same fate as Moshe Safdie’s Ballet Opera House or the Toronto Museum that never got more than $130,000 of funding for a feasibility study in the 80s. The great thing about the Hearn is that it is already there. 98% of what we need to create the largest cultural and community centre in the world is already there. We just had to add the last 2%. It is a lot of work and it takes a huge team, but we’re really just building on what is there already, and what has been there all along.


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

I heard many times during our long journey to make this happen that there is no appetite politically for something of a grand cultural scale at the Hearn Generating Station. I replied: how can you know there is no “appetite” if you have never invited anyone to come over and “eat” there? We have a saying in Germany: “appetite comes with eating”. My mom used to say that to me when I insisted I was not hungry because I detested string beans and boiled potatoes that were served far too often in my Northern German suburban diet. I would fight back when she said this, but today I know it is true (and I actually love string beans and potatoes, too). So how do you know there is no appetite for something when you don’t know what it is you are invited to consume? And so that is exactly what we are doing: we are creating the biggest cultural smorgasboard that this city has ever seen inside the Hearn and we are inviting everyone to come and feast on it.


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

The second thing I heard is that it would cost hundreds of millions to fully develop and transform the Hearn and that is why it won’t happen. It is probably true that it would cost that much to fully develop the space but I just fail to see why that should prevent us from doing something now. The settlers that came to Canada certainly did not think about how much it would cost to build an entire country, the Trans-Canada Highway system, Maple Leaf Gardens, the Place des Arts, the Vancouver Art Gallery, only to realize they did not have the funds or the manpower to accomplish all of that immediately so decided to go back home. No, they started step by step, they started small and their appetite to live in this country grew, so the structures that made this life possible grew, more people came, and brought money and ideas.


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

This is exactly the same kind of process that can and should happen with the Hearn. You do not need to see the end of the path when you start building it. It’s not like in “Sleeping Beauty” where everything is the way it was 100 years ago with a simple kiss. It takes hundreds of thousands of kisses. But I promise, everyone who steps foot into this magical castle, into the Hearn between June 10 and June 26, will feel like a prince who has just discovered a beauty that he or she is willing to kiss and embrace passionately. And those embraces will create a hunger and an appetite for more and hopefully there will be more.


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

I hope that someday Drake will do a party in the Hearn. I hope Toronto will stage its first visionary art biennial here, or the beach volleyball world championships, an EXPO, X Games, the largest Richard Serra retrospective in the world and more more more! And I hope, one day THE PRINCE will come whose bank account is large enough to kiss the Hearn – not back to how it was 100 years ago – but to how it will be 100 years from now. And the government will form a partnership with THAT PRINCE and they will find a way to turn the Hearn into the most advanced cultural centre in the world and make it worth everyone’s while.


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

I have seen this happen over and over again, in Berlin. Berlin was broke 20 years ago. It had no industry and lots of empty, derelict spaces. And the combination of those two things are a sponge for creativity and ideas. Artists moved in, club owners moved in, cultural institutions, galleries, restaurants and opened up these spaces, used them temporarily, used them longer, in different ways, until an investor came and saw the potential of the space and developed it in partnership with those whose ideas brought them back to life and with the city who understood that the creative use of these spaces should be a priority. When we took over an abandoned water powerplant on the River Spree as a rehearsal facility for the opera house where I used to work, we did not know that today it would be the home to a unique symbiosis of a contemporary dance company and one of the finest baroque ensembles in the world (made possible by the investment of a private investor). And how much did this cost the city of Berlin? Hardly anything. Just flexibility and creative thinking.


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

In Toronto in 2016, we found the key to turn on this wonderful space called the Hearn Generating Station. We will leave it in the door and will be more than happy to explain to anyone who wants to use it in the future how to turn it. We want the door to stay open and let more and more people in.


Photo by Jorn Weisbrodt.
Photo by Jorn Weisbrodt.

The first day of construction work , the weather was beautiful. I took this as a good sign for our Festival. At the end of the day as I was driving back towards the city there was a brief rain shower. I picked up a couple of our workers who were on their way to the bus station on Cherry Street (during Luminato l there will be a festival shuttle from Union Station via the Cherry Street bus stop to the Hearn) to help them get to their destination dry and stay dry. It was wonderful to hear from them how excited they were about participating in this project and building all these different facilities in the Hearn. One of them was part of the crew that clean the Hearn of asbestos; he told me proudly how the final test showed that the Hearn was considered “free of any harm”.


Photo by Jonathan Castellino.
Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

It made me think: I guess “free of harm” is wonderful and the basis for being able to live together but we should not forget that it is not enough for life to be “free of harm”. We have to be “full of something” to give life meaning, to give meaning to our communities, to build larger and more complex and diverse communities, and in my opinion that happens through ideas, through culture, through communication, through movement. Something that Jane Jacobs (who would have turned 100 this year) said came to mind: Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

Let’s #TurnOnTheHearn and share new ideas in this glorious old building!
 

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