How do you make a building disappear? This is the question at the heart of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s major new expansion.
On Thursday, the AGO released initial designs for the new wing. It will be named the Dani Reiss Modern and Contemporary Gallery, in recognition of a $35-million gift from Mr. Reiss – the Canada Goose chief executive officer and chair. The AGO says this is among the largest donations in its history.
And yet while the addition will be large, with 40,000 square feet of new galleries, its architecture will be extremely restrained. “If you couldn’t see the edges of the building, that would be fine by me,” the architect Annabelle Selldorf said this week.
Four drawings released by the AGO tell the story. From the street, it looks like a tall cloud formation, picking up the colours of the sky. The designers, Selldorf Architects alongside Ontario firms Diamond Schmitt and Two Row Architect, plan to wrap the building in a material, such as terracotta tile, that can actually provide such an effect – “like the light in a watercolour,” as Ms. Selldorf put it.
Formally announced last year with a budget of roughly $100-million, the Reiss wing will increase the AGO’s gallery space by 40,000 square feet or about 30 per cent, putting it in contention for the most gallery space of any art museum in Canada.
The gallery is still raising money, but aims to break ground in 2024.
Cloud metaphors aside, this will be a building devoted almost totally to exhibition. “It’s essentially a loft for showing art,” said Brian Porter, principal of Two Row.
The selection of Ms. Selldorf and team reflects that intent. Last year Selldorf Architects completed an expansion of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla. There, they knit together a disparate set of buildings on a constrained site, delivering well-tempered white-box galleries. Although that building is smaller than the AGO, it’s a near-perfect analogy for the design challenge at hand.
The six-storey Reiss volume will rise from the back of the museum’s complex in downtown Toronto, above a loading dock and what is now a parking lot. The L-shaped building will connect to the existing museum at the second floor and the sixth floor.
Its five levels will contain 13 gallery spaces which vary in height and size. “This will allow us significant flexibility in how we show the collection,” said AGO director Stephan Jost. “I want to make sure that as conversations change, we are able to adapt.”
There’s no question this project would serve that aim. The AGO has approached the expansion, the seventh in its history, with bloody-minded determination. The Reiss wing will be as large as a mid-sized art museum. And yet there is no café, no bookstore, and very little back-of-house space.
Instead, there is a set of white boxes designed to show art at all scales and in all media. Mr. Jost said this was driven by feedback from curators: They favour the open spaces and robustness of the museum’s 1970s wing. Accordingly the Reiss wing will have clear-span spaces as wide as 60 feet by 60 feet, with “ceilings and walls you can drill into, and a ceiling you can hang from,” Mr. Jost explained.
Planning to build all this on top of an operating museum has been a challenge. “The design looks enormously simple,” said Donald Schmitt of Diamond Schmitt, “but getting to that simplicity has been a complicated road. The goal has been to pursue excellent space and beautiful proportions.”
The entry to the wing will be from the southeast corner of the current museum. From here, a staircase goes straight up, with windows peeking out over the existing museum and Dundas Street. An elevator bank at the northeast corner opens on each floor into a spacious lobby with a window facing east and a built-in bench. (One newly released drawing shows such a space, with paintings by Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Bush on show just around the corner, safely out of direct sunlight.) And on the fifth floor, a terrace with a sculpture garden looks out to the south.
“We’ve tried to create key opportunities for visitors to reconnect with the city, with the sky, with the ground,” said Mr. Porter, a member of Six Nations of the Grand River. He said this reflects a commitment to Indigenous thinking that goes throughout the project, including goals of all-electric climate control, high-performing insulation and net-zero carbon emissions.
The architects explored using mass timber, a proven technology that is increasingly being employed for mid-rise buildings, but went to concrete after the gallery’s insurance company cited concerns about the supposed fire risk.
It’s too bad. The visual warmth and technical innovation of a mass-timber structure would have been welcome additions to what seems like – by design – a machine for showing art.
But at the AGO there is an elephant in the room, and his name is Frank Gehry. The Canadian-American architect designed the gallery’s last expansion, completed in 2008. His blue-titanium gallery tower is an idiosyncratic and gutsy addition to this historic complex; now the Reiss wing will rise next to it, trying to be as quiet as possible, while making space for artists to make noise.