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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

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.


'A seduction of design sweeps through the entire gallery'

The Globe's architecture critic Lisa Rochon and graphic designer Tonia Cowan take you on a guided tour of the ambitiously redesigned Art Gallery of Ontario, which, after $200-million and six years, officially opens next week

Building boom

Part of the large remaking of Toronto's cultural infrastructure, the AGO redevelopment follows the opening of the Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre, the Royal Ontario Museum's redesign, the Ontario College_of Art + Design's expansion, a new addition to the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Arts and Canada's National Ballet School.


The 1993 AGO expansion by Barton Myers/KPMB Architects has been knocked down and replaced by a monumental new front façade of glass and wood. The steel and glass Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Sculpture Atrium, at the back of the gallery, is also gone, replaced by a volume dramatically warmed up by massive Douglas Fir timbers.


Contemporary space

Directly accessible at the corner of McCaul and Dundas, the AGO has opened a self-contained space that will remain open at night even after the gallery closes. On offer is a two-level gift and book shop (smaller but more focused than the AGO's previous retail space), a restaurant serving contemporary comfort cuisine, a casual café with funky Danish-designed chairs and tables, as well the Jackman Hall lecture theatre, and the Young Gallery, a free space for new contemporary arts projects.

The expansion will increase art-viewing space by 47 per cent. With the expansion, the AGO ranks among the largest of art galleries and museums in North America.


Benefactor recognition

The Galleria Italia -- named for the 26 Toronto families of Italian descent who each donated $500,000 -- is a grand promenade of monumental Douglas Fir glue-laminated timbers and a dazzling amount of glass that sweeps along Dundas Street. At 450 feet long, the Galleria is the newest, most exhilarating place in the city where visitors can see and be seen.


A new vista

The new entrance interior has been relocated to align directly with Walker Court and Grange House beyond. The front lobby is intentionally low-slung and dimly lit, a compression of space in which a serpentine, barrier free ramp leads to...

D. explosion of experience: a soaring Walker Court, 58-feet high, is newly topped by a glass roof and surrounded by a wooden catwalk._


Natural light

Peter Paul Rubens' masterpiece The Massacre of The Innocents is a highlight of the internationally acclaimed Thomson Collection, but so is his extensive collection of historic Canadian paintings, including sumptuous works by the Group of Seven newly exhibited in galleries naturally lit by dynamically-shaped massive skylights.


Romantic ascent

An iconic sculptural staircase - the largest, most ecstatic piece of sculpture within the gallery rises from Walker Court (the historic centre of the AGO), providing a romantically-scaled journey up to the new Vivian and David Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art and Baillie Court event space.


Urban approach

Though the contemporary art galleries are inspired by the quintessential white modern space, they make a couple dramatic departures from the classical dogma. Rather than one open universal space the architects have devised an abstract urban street to guide visitors. And to create more intimate connections to the art there are galleries within a large gallery. From the fifth floor, natural light pours from massive sky rooms which float as liberated volumes above the art.


Titanium statement

Lording over Grange Park is a five-storey box appended onto the historic back of the AGO which finishes what the OCAD started: framing the historic park in exhilarating new forms. Clad in tinted titanium the colour of a sky on steroids, the box provides magnificent views to the park and the CN Tower. The spiral stair encased behind glass and stainless steel cantilevers dramatically from the back elevation to allow visitors to travel between the 4th and 5th floors of contemporary art collections.


Members moved

The members' lounge has been moved from within the former AGO and placed, instead, in the first floor of the Grange house._


New permanent exhibit

New African Gallery, designed by the Toronto studio Shim-Sutcliffe Architects will showcase 82 sculptural pieces from Africa, donated by Dr. Murray Frum.



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