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Architecture firm behind Ontario Science Centre says closure was ‘a political move’

TORONTO — The firm of the late architect who designed the Ontario Science Centre says the province’s decision to immediately close its doors over a problem with the roof was “absurd” and motivated by politics rather than safety concerns.

Brian Rudy, a partner with Moriyama Teshima Architects, said news of the science centre’s abrupt closure last week left them “dumbfounded.”

“It’s absurd to think that the whole building needs to be immediately shut down,” Rudy told The Canadian Press. “It’s so obviously a political move.”

Raymond Moriyama, who died last year, designed the science centre that opened in 1969 on a ravine near the west branch of the Don River in Toronto’s east end.

At a hastily called news conference last Friday, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Infrastructure Ontario announced the science centre would close by 4 p.m. due to health and safety concerns over the roof.

The closure sparked outrage from local residents, science lovers and opposition politicians. Many have called on the government to reverse course.

The province blamed failing roof panels made with a material called reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, a lightweight form of concrete that was popular in the 1960s and ’70s.

The government said it acted fast after receiving an engineer’s report earlier in the week that laid out problems with the roof. The science centre’s board decided to close the institution.

The report, written by the engineering firm Rimkus Consulting, did not recommend an immediate closure.

Some roof panels are at risk of collapse and Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma said the engineers told government officials that the roof should be replaced in its entirety. That would take two to five years and cost upwards of $40 million.

Surma said it was a health-and-safety matter and that she was not “going to risk the safety of workers and children.”

But Rudy said the roof panel problem should not have come as a surprise to the government.

“It needn’t have been because it has been known for years,” Rudy said. “This has been an issue identified decades ago.”

Several reports over the years painted a sad story of the science centre’s state of disrepair. Successive governments, from Progressive Conservatives to Liberals to New Democrats, deferred maintenance.

Rudy said his firm analyzed the engineer’s report and he thinks there are a number of ways forward, and questioned the government’s actions.

“It’s not as urgent as they would let on,” Rudy said.

“Most of the panels actually aren’t even above exhibition spaces. So the urgency to close exhibition spaces is unfounded. In fact, all of the permanent exhibit spaces are free of this type of roof panel entirely, so it’s not even a concern.”

Rudy takes no issue with the thrust of the engineer’s report.

“There’s no doubt that repairs need to be made and that’s no different than any building of this age,” he said.

“Any building or museum of this size is going to have periodic maintenance at this age, so this is something that they know and that they do in phases, even if there are panels above public spaces. They’re easy to rope off and make secure from public while the repairs are done.”

The firm wants the province to reverse its decision and has offered its services free of charge to help.

The province does not appear to be wavering. It is looking for an interim spot for the centre before a new one, half the size, opens at a redeveloped Ontario Place.

“The report proposes a single scope of work requiring both remediation and, in some areas, complete roof assembly and panel replacement,” said Ash Milton, a spokesperson for Surma.

“This work has a potential cost of at least $22-40 million and would require a closure of the facility for more than two years. It would still not be open for the summer.”

Milton said the full cost to repair everything at the science centre “would be at least $478 million.”

“Our government is delivering a new, world-class facility for the OSC at Ontario Place, including 15 per cent more exhibition space, with completion as early as 2028,” Milton said.

“In the interim, the OSC is exploring opportunities for alternative programming, such as mobile, pop-up experiences and virtual.”

While the science centre is owned by the province, the land it is on is owned by the City of Toronto and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.

Premier Doug Ford has said the future of the site will be determined by the city.

The city is set to debate a motion Thursday about the province’s responsibilities and the feasibility of operating the science centre at its current location.

The office of Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said as part of the “new deal” with the province signed last year, the two sides agreed to “discuss partnership opportunities with the city for maintaining public, community-oriented science programming at the legacy Ontario Science Centre.”

Chow is urging residents to “do the needed repairs and keep the centre open for families to enjoy.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 27, 2024.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press