Frank Gehry has an appetite for more. His architecture craves abundance - for glass canopies hanging perilously from jutting timbers at London's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion; for a floating cloud imagined at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris; even for the grand and occasionally surgical remodelling of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Because Gehry dreams large, new life has been given to Toronto's downtown. The AGO's monumental galleria in Douglas-fir timbers looks more densely planted than a West Coast forest. The central spiral staircase feels more out of control than a careening roller coaster. The titanium panels on the back wall are more blue, more clarifying and more strident than a prairie sky on a winter's day.
Relax: This is not a stylistic flash in the pan by another architect in designer glasses. Thankfully, for Toronto and the rest of Canada, Gehry's transformation of the AGO is inspired not by personal ego but by allowing for a journey that goes deep into art and the city.
It was eight years ago that AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum and the late Kenneth Thomson met with Gehry to spearhead the remarkable renewal. After his father's death, David Thomson became fully engaged by the gallery's transformation. Gehry, an old architectural warrior, came back to his hometown to do what he's always done: direct a compelling piece of theatre. His Toronto playhouse dazzles.
The lush drama begins at the front of the house, where a monumental glass corset held together by giant timber boning spans an entire block of Dundas Street West. At either end of the grand gesture are double-curved masks of glass with glue-laminated fir timbers fully exposed to the elements. To stand beneath the muscular structure could deliver enough of a street show. But the seduction by Gehry sweeps through the entire gallery.
Expect to be treated as both spectator and actor at the new AGO, which opens to the public next Friday. Wind yourself along the serpentine ramp within the entrance lobby, and look down through tear-shaped cuts in the floor to Kenneth Thomson's collection of ship models. Now you're a part of the audience. Stand on the wooden catwalk that surrounds historic Walker Court, and you become an actor on a balcony, with no art to distract you on the walls.
At the back of the gallery, in what used to be the slightly icy sculpture court, Gehry has inserted an intense timber structure to butt up against historic Grange house. Here, one of the world's greatest creative genius of exhilarating forms confronts the pinched Victorian structures built by Ontario's governing officials and pioneering elites. David Altmejd's The Index pushes the point: His work of stuffed birds and squirrels, perched within a wood-and-steel play structure, evokes a postcolonial dread. This is, by far, the darkest part of the AGO's new theatre.
The remodelled AGO, whose budget was in the neighbourhood of a quarter-billion dollars, is as much about looking at art as it is about looking out with fresh eyes to the city. From the second-storey Galleria Italia, there are treetops and the mansard rooftops of 19th-century mansions, as well as the scruffy businesses of Chinatown. The city, its flow of immigrants, its varied ambitions, seem to rise up and smack against the glass. In previous guises - there have been seven expansions since the gallery first opened in the Grange in 1911 - the AGO looked inward, keeping minds focused on the art and bodies safely encased behind walls of brick or precast concrete. With Gehry's redesign, the city seems more protean, more weirdly and wildly forgiving than before.
This is the neighbourhood where British government officials were granted large "park lots" of land in the early 1800s; where, 100 years later, Jews persecuted in Eastern Europe made their way, eventually setting up stalls in Kensington Market. It's where Gehry went to the AGO when he was 8; where carp was purchased with his grandmother to make gefilte fish for the Sabbath; where Gehry's bar mitzvah took place. In November, 1946, Gehry heard Alvar Aalto speak at a free public lecture at the University of Toronto. The humanity of the great Finnish architect resonated profoundly with him.
Compelling, enduring works of architecture communicate in myriad ways. Being inside the monumental Galleria Italia - a space made possible by 26 Toronto families of Italian descent, each contributing $500,000 - feels quite unlike the reading from the street. Instead of a glass corset, the interior reveals a dense collision of curved timbers that conspire, at varying angles, to achieve a sense of warm, life-giving shelter. Or maybe it's like stepping into the belly of a whale, or lying underneath a cedar-strip canoe. Aiming to "tame the scale" of the sculpture gallery, Gehry inserted chunky wooden louvres running horizontally between the vertical columns. Here is evidence of the world-famous humanity of Gehry - his desire to exhilarate us with his forms, rather than punishing us with their audacity.