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Architect Frank Gehry describes his concert hall design at the Colburn School during an unveiling in downtown Los Angeles on March 16.Richard Vogel/The Associated Press

Nearly a decade ago, Frank Gehry announced he would be designing a major development project in downtown Toronto. Now, that project, named Forma, is about to begin sales – and featuring the tallest building by the world’s most famous architect.

Gehry in an interview last week described the design in matter-of-fact terms.

“It’s very economical,” the Toronto-born architect said. “And it fits with how I see the Toronto aesthetic: quiet.” Not many people would choose those same adjectives. Forma’s first tower will be 73 storeys tall and wrapped in a skin of undulating, shimmering stainless steel; it is likely to become one of the most visible and memorable buildings in the city. Its twin is planned to be 84 storeys tall.

Gehry has always been a bit contrarian. The 93-year-old is known for buildings – above all the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain – that seem idiosyncratic and expressive. Yet while his work has engaged with the techniques and ideas of contemporary art, he insists on being seen as a sober-minded professional.

Now he is taking on the constraints of the development industry. His clients in Toronto are a partnership of major developers Great Gulf Group, Dream and Westdale Properties. And after 10 years, and some inevitable compromises, he says he is happy with the way the project is evolving.

Forma’s two towers on King Street West, flanking Duncan Street, will hold more than 2,000 condo apartments. The developers plan to sell and construct the eastern tower first; this will contain space for OCAD University within its base. The distinguished interior designer Paolo Ferrari will design amenity spaces for the residences.

The two towers mix two different patterns in the cladding, or outer skin. The tower pictured above is steel, with an irregular rippled pattern pierced by rectangular punched windows. The other tower is clear curtain-wall glass.Courtesy of Great Gulf Group, Dream and Westdale Properties

The towers’ architecture has been simplified considerably over the past five years, in a normal process of cost-cutting. However, Gehry and his colleague David Nam, who is managing the project, expressed satisfaction with the way the design has evolved.

Adamson Associates Architects and the Italian fabrication company Permasteelisa – with whom the Gehry office has worked for decades – are collaborating on the project. The architecture strives to create strong visual effects by refracting and reflecting the sun, Gehry said.

“You take advantage of the play of light,” he said. “That’s free.”

The two towers mix two different patterns in the cladding, or outer skin. One is clear curtain-wall glass; the other is steel, which has an irregular rippled pattern and is pierced by rectangular punched windows. (The latter is a Gehry trademark, in which the rhythm of solid-and-void from a masonry building is playfully translated into a thin layer of steel.)

The condo’s street-level lobby will feature a sculptural installation by the Gehry office that employs a motif of maple leaves.Courtesy of Great Gulf Group, Dream and Westdale Properties

In previous iterations, each floor of the towers had irregular curved edges. Now, Nam said, the edges are all straight; and all of the ins and outs of the building’s outer skin will be contained within a vertical plane eight inches deep.

“That was the challenge that was put before us,” Nam said. “We did many studies to make sure that the play of light was interesting, and the [visual] softness we were looking for was still achievable within that depth.”

This has been a key theme in Gehry’s work since the 1970s. When his renovated his family’s house in the beachfront district of Santa Monica, he employed chain-link fence prominently among the materials. In time he began to use metal, usually stainless steel or zinc, in more refined ways. His two most famous projects, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, feature curving skins of titanium and stainless steel, respectively. Gehry also linked the Toronto towers to the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, completed in 1993.

“At sunset, you capture all that light on the façade, and it changes everything,” he said.

And the Art Gallery of Ontario employs what Gehry calls “a blue box” of titanium. Torontonians who have seen the museum’s Gehry-designed addition will be familiar with how sunlight plays off a textured metal surface. Similarly, some of his trademark interior architectural language showed up in the AGO and will recur at Forma: pale, heavily textured limestone tiles on walls and floors, and furniture that employs Douglas fir plywood. The condo’s street-level lobby will include both – along with a sculptural installation by the Gehry office that employs a motif of maple leaves.

The AGO recently announced it had hired the New York-based architect Annabelle Selldorf to expand the museum with more galleries for contemporary art. Gehry said his firm had not competed for that job – “it was made clear to us that they wanted a new voice,” he said. And he added that Selldorf, who has worked alongside the Gehry office on a cultural complex in France, is “an excellent architect.”

But Gehry has spoken for years about how hard it has been for him to secure a major commission in Toronto, which he left in 1947 but which he said he still considers home.

The distinguished interior designer Paolo Ferrari will design amenity spaces for the residences.Courtesy of Great Gulf Group, Dream and Westdale Properties

In our interview, he revealed that the AGO also proposed hiring him to lead the redesign of Grange Park – the publicly accessible space behind the museum that is owned and maintained by the AGO. The problem? The project’s lead donors, the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, “had some questions about whether we could manage the budget,” he said with a laugh.

Now Gehry is leading a project with a hundred times the budget, one that will be visible across the city. And the texture of the steel skin will also come all the way down to ground level, culminating in a pair of protruding canopies that will reach out over Duncan Street.

“I think it could be a real game-changer for the street,” he said. “I hope I’ll be around to see it finished.”

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