It's a symbol of the disappearing industrial presence on Toronto's waterfront. It's a relic of the past and a building of behemoth scale that's sat idle on a piece of land that's similarly been ignored for far too long. But the Hearn Generating Station could become a public landmark by returning the Port Lands to the people and fostering a new age of arts and culture in the city. The Hearn played host to the first ever public event in 2015 when Unsound Toronto filled its cavernous nooks with music and light, opening up the remarkable space to new possibilities. Now in its 10th year, the Luminato Festival takes the success of last year's event and ramps it up significantly. From June 10 to 26, the Hearn will be a temple for arts, culture and music, as thousands descend on the historic property and familiarize themselves with one of Toronto's most impressive structures.
UrbanToronto attended a special preview of the building Thursday as last minute preparations were being made to the space. Led by Luminato Artistic Director Jorn Weisbrodt, who likened the Hearn to 'Sleeping Beauty's castle', the extensive tour revealed the building's true potential. Opened in 1951 as a coal-fired electrical plant and later converted to burn natural gas, it was decommissioned in 1983. Some of the generators, alongside the control room and switchyard, were operated by a small team until all operations ceased in 1995. Since then, the building has fallen into disrepair. Rusted vehicles, weeds and containers litter the property. It emits an uneasy post-apocalyptic vibe, attracting movie shoots like Suicide Squad, Pacific Rim and Resident Evil.
Amid this landscape of vegetation, concrete and rubble is a dramatic installation by artist Pierre Huyghe. Acquired by the Art Gallery of Ontario, Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) [Reclining Female Nude], is on view in Toronto for the first time. The head of the statue is obscured by a buzzing beehive, engaging the local ecosystem while noting the juxtaposition between the animate and the inanimate. Described as both an "uncanny index of our shifting cultural landscape and an assertion of the remarkable beauty to be found in our new, strange world", the piece welcomes guests just beyond the western face of the Hearn.
As we step inside the space, the temperature dips significantly. The airy and cool space, three times the size of London's Tate Modern, is a blank canvas for artists to impose their creative will upon. The transformation of the Hearn began on May 16, taking only three-and-a-half weeks to complete, with the Toronto architectural firm PARTISANS providing the visionary blueprint for the space. The decommissioned plant has become the world's largest temporary cultural and community centre.
The massive concrete pillars which held the Hearn's turbines in place frame newly poured concrete floors, which replace the dirt and puddles that defined the interior during UrbanToronto's recent "before" visit. Traversing beneath these massive archways, a number of art displays are scattered about the area. OCAD University brings the space to life with Prescience, a series of sensory experiences. Yasemin Oncu's Election Flags provides commentary on Turkish political parties, while the suspended circle of Bonnie Tung's LOOP runs a colourful animation along its curvature.
Situation Rooms by Rimini Protokoll is an immersive multiplayer video experience that makes its North American debut at Luminato. Participants are equipped with an iPad mini and headphones as they follow 20 real-life characters shaped by the international arms trade. The perspectives and stories of an Israeli soldier, Swiss weapons manufacturer, or Mexican drug cartel administrator are all told with the help of specific physical environments crafted to accompany the images on the portable screens. The interactive exhibit promises to be one of the most thought-provoking of the festival.
Walking deeper into the Hearn's innards, the Music Stage will be the platform for multiple unique performances. It will accommodate 5,000 people standing for Unsound Toronto on June 10 and 11, and 2,000 seated patrons for Rufus Wainwright’s concert Rufus does Judy on June 23 and 24.
The James Plays, an epic trilogy that has been hailed as "Scotland's answer to Game of Thrones", will emanate from the 1,200-seat Hearn Theatre. Acoustic and theatre consultants Charcoalblue have outfitted these performance venues to ensure unobstructed sightlines and clear sound quality.
Traveling through the space, glimpses of moving reflected light shine on the steel girders and high walls of the interior. Walking up the Grand Staircase to the Jackman Gallery, the source becomes immediately visible. The world's largest mirror ball—the same that hung above David Pecaut Square during the 2013 edition of Luminato—sends rays of light to nearly every recess of the building.
One Thousand Speculations by Montreal artist Michel de Broin consists of over 1,100 mirrors. The ball is delicately hoisted by the original crane of the Hearn, which is surprisingly still in working condition. Jorn Weisbrodt had originally intended for the ball to move along the track, but a 'drop point' was needed for safety reasons.
The 960-foot-long Jackman Gallery will be the largest and longest columnless gallery space in the world, as it hosts Scott McFarland’s Trove – A View of Toronto in 50 of its Treasures. Positioned roughly 12 metres above the ground, the gallery is accessible via several staircases and an elevator.
Towards one end of the space lies the Control Room, a popular subject for photographers and lovers of abandoned spaces. Frédéric Morin (Joe Beef) and John Bil (Honest Weight) have transformed this raw recess of the Hearn into Le Pavillon, a French culinary experience. Each communal table seats up to six, with additional bar seating boasting the best views of the kitchen.
The power plant has been silent for decades, ready to be awakened again. It presents new opportunities for adaptive reuse, building upon the waterfront's gradual transition from industrial to more people-friendly uses and activities. Luminato is the perfect vessel for Torontonians to open their eyes and minds to the potential this space holds. It will encourage visitors to think critically about how the Port Lands should be developed. It perhaps even has the power to expedite government officials into spending the money necessary to naturalize the mouth of the Don River, a precursor to any development on the waterfront property. With many Torontonians unaware that this empty mecca of industrial obsolescence even exists, Luminato serves not only as a premier arts and culture showcase, but as an enlightening educational exercise in civic pride.
The festivities begin Friday evening at 8 PM, when BASE jumpers from Team FX will freefall from the Hearn's 215-metre-tall smokestack. (The jump will be repeated on Saturday the 11th at 8 PM. Rain dates are the 17th and 18th.) The original floodlights that had illuminated the giant chimney will proudly return, as revelers in the outdoor German-style beer garden bask in its glow. If you'd like to see the Hearn's majestic spaces yourself, tours will be offered during the free 17-day event. For additional information, including opening hours and transportation options, visit the Luminato website.