Seeing the stars at the McLaughlin Planetarium

At the dawn of the 1960s, with the excitement and glamour of space travel capturing the public imagination, Canada launched a space race of its own: within the decade six new civic planetariums were constructed in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. Toronto’s McLaughlin Planetarium, named after Oshawa industrialist and philanthropist Colonel R.S. McLaughlin, opened on October 26, 1968, adjacent to the Royal Ontario Museum at 100 Queen’s Park Crescent West.

Architects Allward and Gouinlock composed the McLaughlin Planetarium with geometric simplicity and Classical symmetry: a cylindrical central structure, set upon a raised podium, is ringed by a octagonal midsection and capped by a hemispherical dome. The dome itself consists of inner and outer shells of reinforced concrete sandwiching an insulating layer of urethane foam. The outer shell is 91 feet in diameter and only two-and-a-half inches thick; the inner shell is lined with white-painted aluminum projection panels, lap-jointed for smoothness and perforated for acoustic control.

Under the dome were 340 seats surrounding a massive Zeiss planetarium projector, which featured two spherical primary projectors at each end of its dumbbell-shaped structure. Twisting and turning on a pair of articulated arms, the projector loomed over the audience like a giant mechanical insect during shows. 85 secondary slide and video projectors further enhanced visual presentations. The remainder of the planetarium included an entrance lobby, library and gift shop on the main floor, a lecture hall in the lower level and an exhibition gallery and passageway to the Royal Ontario Museum on the second floor. Planned but not built were a 550-seat conventional theatre, a parking garage and an underground link to the Museum subway station. Renovations during the late 1970s and early 1980s, largely to allow an addition to the ROM, demolished some interior spaces and reconfigured others.

The McLaughlin Planetarium closed in November 1995, following budget cuts by the Ontario government, and its exhibits, interior fixtures and planetarium projector were removed. Plans by the museum in 2004 to replace the planetarium with a 46-storey luxury condominium tower met with considerable public opposition, and in 2009 the property was sold to the University of Toronto to accommodate expansions of their law and business faculties. The building is currently used by the ROM as office and storage space.

Allward and Gouinlock was formed in 1935 by University of Toronto graduates Hugh Allward (1899-1971) and G. Roper Gouinlock (1896-1979). The firm’s major postwar projects include Sunnybrook Hospital (2075 Bayview Avenue, 1948); a showroom and offices for Massey-Harris (954 King Street West, 1948; demolished); an avant-garde extension to the Mechanical Engineering Building at the University of Toronto (5 King’s College Circle, 1948); the Duplate Canada Building (50 St. Clair Avenue West, 1951); the Veterans’ Memorial Buildings in Ottawa (284 and 344 Wellington Street, 1956 and 1962); the Ford Motor Company of Canada headquarters in Oakville (The Canadian Road, 1959; demolished); the Dentistry Building at the University of Toronto (124 Edward Street, 1959); the Hockey Hall of Fame (Exhibition Place, 1962; demolished); the Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories at the University of Toronto (80 St. George Street, 1963); and Atkinson College at York University (4700 Keele Street, 1966). Allward and Gouinlock was also a member of a consortium of architectural firms responsible for the Government of Ontario complex at Queen’s Park (1968 and 1972).

7 Responses to “Seeing the stars at the McLaughlin Planetarium”

  1. 1 Michael Francis McCarthy June 9, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Another great post, Robert. When I lived in T.O. I thought the McLaughlin was a rather unremarkable building, especially when compared with its sisters across the country (though I do like the photo of it you found!). What’s your opinion about the other planetaria (sp?). I hadn’t been to Vancouver’s “Space Centre” for decades. I went this year and the entire experience seemed out of another decade. Thanks for making the connection to the space race and the general race into the future of the era. Shame to read that the McLaughlin has been gutted for ROM storage. And the condo war is another great story, too. Cheers from Vancouver, Michael.

    • 2 robertmoffatt115 June 10, 2011 at 11:30 am

      Hi Michael – thanks for your comments and kind words! The Calgary planetarium seems to be considered the best architecturally of the six opened in Canada during the 1960s… it’s a very Corbusian Brutalist building by Jack Long. I see the planetarium will shortly be moving to a new location, however. I’ve visited the Vancouver planetarium several times over the years, and while I don’t think it’s a particularly accomplished building architecturally, it’s an iconic New Formalist / Expressionist period piece with an engaging sense of fun and whimsy. And George Norris’s crab sculpture is wonderful.

  2. 3 Michael Francis McCarthy June 15, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    Hi Robert –
    Thanks for your extra comments. Calgary’s was the only planetarium noted in that great book of yours, “Canadian architecture, 1960/70.” I just read the Wikipedia article on the (former) Dow Planetarium in Montreal. Seems like it, too, is ready to move to a new location, which has angered some heritage types in Montreal. I’ve never really cared for Vancouver’s building, but it has grown on me over the years. Luckily, last year’s Olympic Games meant that the iconic “Coast Salish Hat” design of the roof got a fresh coat of paint, and it looks great. And you’re right – George Norris’ piece is a brilliant focal point to the entry. (Now I’m wondering: whatever happened to his sculpture that used to grace the Georgia/Granville plaza of Pacific Centre. Any ideas where that one went?). Cheers, Michael

  3. 5 Michael Francis McCarthy June 26, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Thanks for the sculpture sleuthing, Robert! It was sad to learn of “Silver Bird” and her sorry ending. And how interesting you mentioned “Cumbria.” As a child, that piece was perhaps my first encounter with modern sculpture. I remember driving to the then-new airport and seeing those slices of yellow on the meridian. I thought it was all fantastic. I didn’t know about Tony Onley’s role in saving it. Though its new site next to the Belkin is somehow appropriate, it is awfully cramped there out at UBC. Thanks again! Cheers, Michael.

  4. 6 Christien August 6, 2013 at 3:21 am

    Hi Robert –

    I’m doing a bit of research on Canadian Planetariums, architecture of, and was wonder if you have the photo credits for images in this post handy. Also, any suggestions for go-to reference/books would be warmly received.

    Let me take this opportunity to thanks you for you blog – it’s a great resource!


    • 7 robertmoffatt115 August 19, 2013 at 4:56 pm

      Hi Christien – thanks for your inquiry. I’m not able to determine who (if anyone) holds the rights for the McLaughlin Planetarium postcard image – TravelTime Products apparently no longer exists and there’s no photographer indicated. If you’re researching Canadian planetariums, a good resource for AEC industry articles is the Canadian Architectural Periodicals Index 1940-1980 by Claude Bergeron; the Calgary planetarium is also featured in Leon Whiteson’s Modern Canadian Architecture and Carol Moore Ede’s Canadian Architecture 1960/70. I also recall the Vancouver planetarium featured in a Beautiful British Columbia magazine from the late 1960s. Municipal and provincial archives may also have historic images on file. Best of luck in your research!

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