At the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Frank Gehry plays hockey with architecture, turning it into a game of speed and balance. From a curving glass entry facade that catches the motion of streetcars trundling along Dundas Street to a switchback ramp in the lobby and then a corkscrew stair in the museum’s central courtyard, Gehry—a hockey fan—gets things moving, slows them down, then picks them up again. At the same time, his extreme makeover of the venerable Toronto institution reasserts the original 1918 building’s north–south axis as a stabilizing force and the primary path for visitors to follow as they enter the museum and orient themselves.
Gehry’s first building in the city where he was born and grew up (he has done a couple of interiors there, too), the AGO brings the notion of time and memory into subtle play. The architect’s maternal grandparents lived just a couple of blocks away, and he often played in Grange Park adjacent to the museum. He vividly remembers his first visit to the AGO (then called the Art Gallery of Toronto) when he was eight years old and speaks fondly of seeing a John Marin seascape in Walker Court, the colonnaded space at the center of the museum’s original building, by Darling & Pearson. Over the years, though, the prominence of Walker Court in the overall scheme had diminished as the museum expanded piecemeal. In an expansion that opened in 1993, Barton Myers moved the museum’s main entry to the east side of the block, away from the historic axis running through Walker Court and the Grange, the 19th-century mansion that served as the institution’s first home. While the Myers design brought the entrance close to the busy intersection of Dundas and McCaul Streets, it introduced a new circulation pattern that was less direct and more confusing. One of Gehry’s first decisions was to return the museum’s entry sequence to the axis he remembers from his childhood, albeit one that now starts at an entirely new Dundas Street facade and lobby.
By bending wood in various ways throughout the project, the architect evokes in an abstract way the feeling of hockey sticks and the boards that envelop every rink’s skating surface. His new Dundas Street elevation stretches over the sidewalk to embrace pedestrians in a two-story-high glass, steel, and wood canopy that frames views of the houses across the street and curves overhead to bring the sky into the composition. At the east and west ends of the building, Gehry “tore off” pieces of the canopy to interrupt the 450-foot-long expanse and create surfaces angled toward the street intersections that can be used for banners announcing exhibitions. Although the facade’s web of curving, glue-laminated-wood beams injects a dynamic note onto the street, the exposed structure has a rugged, decidedly Canadian, quality to it. Nothing precious here. “I wanted to create a proscenium experience,” says Gehry, describing how the entry canopy frames views of the scenery and action along Dundas Street. The sweeping facade certainly engages the fabric of the city in a way that earlier incarnations of the AGO never did, but the narrow concrete steps and lack of benches make sitting and lingering here less enticing than it could be.
In his initial scheme for the project, Gehry envisioned a series of towers on Dundas Street housing most of the new gallery spaces. But this design proved too expensive, so he created the curving facade—which reviewers and locals alike have greeted with cheers—and added a large gallery block on the back of the building, fitting steel columns through the existing structure and stacking new floors above the old ones. On the second floor of the long front addition, he created a 50-foot-high sculpture gallery that serves as one of the museum’s “wow” moments. Douglas fir louvers run along the top portion of the curving wood ribs, creating an animated play of light and structure. Gehry wants the louvers to come all the way down to the floor to make the space “less pompous,” but the museum likes the way they are now because they reveal more of the double layer of wood elements shaping the Dundas Street facade and allow extra light to enter from the north.
The 88,000-square-foot tower on the back of the building looms over the diminutive redbrick Grange, establishing a juxtaposition of scales and materials that is a bit jarring at first. Gehry says he “painted” his blocky new structure with blue-titanium cladding, which “works beautifully on gray days.” And he massed his tower so it roughly matches the height of Will Alsop’s addition to the Ontario College of Art & Design [RECORD, August 2004, page 124] hovering on the east side of Grange Park. Along with an apartment tower to the south and the Alsop building, the Gehry tower does indeed help define the park at a bigger, more urban scale and works better the longer you look at it.
Inside the new Dundas Street addition, Gehry designed a lobby with a snaking accessibility ramp made of 5-foot-high panels of Douglas fir. With the ramp, he not only turned a necessity into an attraction, but offered visitors walking on it sneak peeks into galleries one story below where donor Kenneth Thomson’s collection of ship models is displayed in Gehry-designed vitrines. In Walker Court, Gehry covered the space with a new glass roof and used the daylight to direct visitors through the museum. He also inserted a mezzanine level around the court to provide access to temporary exhibition spaces and galleries for Thomson’s collection of Canadian art (his European art collection is on the ground floor). Walking from the second to fifth floors, visitors take a wood-clad corkscrew stair that ascends right through the court’s glass roof and is suspended from the new tower on the back of the museum. To connect the top two floors, Gehry designed a curving “barnacle” stair that cantilevers out from the south face of the tower and offers dramatic views of the park. “Frank created a journey through the building,” states Matthew Teitelbaum, the AGO’s director and C.E.O. “His design is about the experience of moving from one space to another.” Rather than grabbing attention just with its forms (both inside and out), the AGO seduces by creating an athletic tension between motion and repose.