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ENDURING -- AGO, 2008: The pressure was huge. Frank Gehry, determined to create a fitting monument to his hometown, might have produced a nightmare of constructed angst for the AGO. Or a screaming diva. In fact, Mr. Gehry and his right-hand man Craig Webb turned out a masterful reinvention . How? They that clarified the gallery’s plan and insinuated the warmth and shape of the body throughout the new spaces. Massive sky rooms bathe contemporary art and masterpieces from the Thomson art collection in a subtle democracy of light. Stretching the length of an entire city block, there is the great belly of the whale – the Galleria Italia – deserves to be baptized as Toronto’s new, exhilarating living room. (Charla Jones)
ENDURING -- AGO, 2008: The pressure was huge. Frank Gehry, determined to create a fitting monument to his hometown, might have produced a nightmare of constructed angst for the AGO. Or a screaming diva. In fact, Mr. Gehry and his right-hand man Craig Webb turned out a masterful reinvention . How? They that clarified the gallery’s plan and insinuated the warmth and shape of the body throughout the new spaces. Massive sky rooms bathe contemporary art and masterpieces from the Thomson art collection in a subtle democracy of light. Stretching the length of an entire city block, there is the great belly of the whale – the Galleria Italia – deserves to be baptized as Toronto’s new, exhilarating living room. (Charla Jones)

A monumental moment Add to ...

The capturing of natural light by Gehry - and Craig Webb, senior partner at Gehry International, Architects Inc., who played a critical role on this front - is inspired. The contemporary and historic galleries are often lit not by mere skylights but by soaring volumes that could be called celestial sky rooms. These are vessels of light and shadow, and, because of their ethereal qualities, they may be the most poetic and benevolent of gestures at the redeveloped AGO.

That they were endorsed by Teitelbaum speaks to his dedication not only to Gehry the artist, but to honouring the eyes of the public. To see Paterson Ewen's Comet below a sky room designed as a camera's monumental aperture satisfies a thirst. Elsewhere, works by the Group of Seven hang below enormous, deeply set skylights with snouts pointed at sharp angles so that the light from above never threatens a painting.

The notion that art can and should be experienced as an act of intimacy came to determine the size and materiality of the galleries. Though the AGO has expanded from 486,000 square feet to 583,000 square feet (45,150 to 54,162 square metres), the design seems to constantly refer back to the scale of the human body. Dozens of Gehry's contemporary chaise longues - one version is called Adam, the other is Eve - have been specially designed for the AGO project. The dismountable lounges will be scattered among several galleries, so expect to see people gazing at art while lying down. That they are gorgeous to touch speaks volumes about the sensibility of Gehry versus that of, say, Daniel Libeskind, who produced a series of stainless-steel chairs for the redesigned Royal Ontario Museum that are difficult to approach, let alone curl into.

You will discover the AGO easier to navigate than before. Sited close to the edge of a cleaned-up sidewalk, the front entrance has been placed on central axis to Walker Court, the way it should have been years ago. The contemporary-art galleries are white and airy but interrupted by more intimate galleries dedicated to the work of, say, Betty Goodwin or General Idea.

An AGO Transformation? I think it's better described as an AGO Reformation. So much has changed about the place, which until the 1950s had its senior art curator based in England. Now, contemporary works are being juxtaposed provocatively against salon pieces. Something akin to a ballet barre has been set within inches of small paintings by James Wilson Morrice, the better to invite you to get close to the art. It's the equivalent of resting your elbows on a zinc bar in a Paris brasserie and gazing at the waitress.

Within Thomson's European art collection and its highly subdued textures - walnut flooring, silk on the walls - there is a discreet room clad in copper to contemplate open prayer books; another cube is clad in black granite. To wander into this experience is to lose the noise and speed of the outside world.

And then, with little warning, you are confronted by the violence and passion of Peter Paul Rubens's The Massacre of the Innocents, a 17th-century masterpiece that Philippe de Montebello, soon-to-be-retired director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, still calls his own - he was the underbidder at the auction when Ken Thomson miraculously paid $117-million for the work.

And, yes, despite years of careful planning and design, the project has some flaws. Those ship models are displayed in roller-coaster-like glass cabinets that fight unnecessarily with the tear-shaped cuts in the floor above. The 6,500-square-foot event space, with walls of polka dots cut out from medium-density fibreboard, seems better suited to a child's playroom than to the weddings and corporate events it is meant to attract.

Finally, the back elevation of the gallery lords over the park in an uneasy relationship. There was an attempt to match the floating irreverence of Will Alsop's neighbouring Ontario College of Art & Design by cladding the AGO contemporary-art tower with a wacky, though jarring, tint of blue titanium panels. But the power of the idea has been lost by gallery windows that cast a gloom over the back elevation like a dead TV screen. Still, the five-storey steel tower can be magic at night - when the colour grows subdued, the glass disappears, and the shadows of the city climb around the views.

There have been hits and misses along the road to renew the cultural infrastructure of Toronto. But the public has grown wiser for the effort. Since the Royal Ontario Museum opened its doors last year, there's been a hunger for an institution enlivened by its own internal reinvention, a desire to see how a large public gallery can be a thing of beauty and still matter. The Art Gallery of Ontario pulls back its curtain next week. Gehry's only show in Canada has a little to do with the story of a prodigal son, and a whole lot more to do with architecture that will illuminate long into the future.

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