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Frank Gehry responds to critics of design for Toronto landmark

An image from Frank Gehry’s designs for David Mirvish’s project to remake his properties at King Street West and John St. in Toronto.

Courtesy of Gehry International Inc.

Frank Gehry has heard the scathing reviews of the proposed condo and mixed-use development he's designed for downtown Toronto, but the famed Canadian architect insisted Monday that the plans simply represent a first draft.

"You have to realize that it's precarious to show projects like this and make them look finished," Mr. Gehry said at the official unveiling of the development's suggested design.

"If you show any kind of architecture at these early stages that represent anything outside the norm they get clobbered, because people say, 'Well, you can't do that, you can't afford that."'

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Mr. Gehry's vision would see three 80-plus-storey towers — each resembling boxes placed atop one another — jutting into Toronto's increasingly crowded skyline. At street-level, two six-storey podiums with room for a new 60,000 square-foot art gallery and facilities for OCAD University would be whimsically embellished by crinkled horizontal strips resembling pieces of paper.

Those details were quickly mocked online after the project's designs were first revealed, with many uncharitably describing them as resembling strands of used toilet paper.

Mr. Gehry noted that the podium's design in particular is just an early tease of what could be built. The rings in the prototype design were in fact constructed of torn paper, which is just an approximation of the idea, he said.

"Somebody in one of the blogs referred to them as garbage. Trust me, they're not garbage," he said, while also swatting away suggestions that his unconventional designs might be difficult to construct.

"It's not a final design, if you look at my work I do about 50 models. So it'll evolve but it'll have this character."

The ambitious plans are being pursued by theatre mogul David Mirvish, who is committing to demolishing the Princess of Wales Theatre — a King Street landmark that has mounted countless blockbuster stage shows (currently "War Horse") — to make room for the large complex.

After years of talking with Mr. Gehry about building something in Toronto, he decided it was time to act.

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"I don't have a timetable that allows me to wait for Frank Gehry, because the economic time isn't right," Mr. Mirvish said.

We can't "wait till he's 88. He's 83, let's do it now and we'll figure out our problems as we go. ... Yes, we'll have to face reality or we won't be able to sell it but first let's dream and make the best project we can — then we'll figure out how we'll build it in the most economical way, and then we'll find out how to put it into people's budgets so they can buy it."

He said it was critical that the condo buildings be designed as art pieces and not be simple "glass boxes" like most other condos in Toronto.

"I'm interested in architecture because it tells us who we are, it tells us where we're arrived at a certain moment in our lives," Mr. Mirvish said.

"These towers can become a symbol of what Toronto can be. I am not building condominiums, I am building three sculptures for people to live in. If I could live in the Casa Mila (designed by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona) — I know it was controversial in its day — I would consider that a privilege.

"And I believe I'm sharing a privilege."

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Listening to critics lambaste his trademark out-there designs is just part of the job, said Gehry. He recalls his design for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles being described as "broken crockery."

"It's easy to malign something like that as 'garbage,'" said Gehry.

"In Bilbao, Spain, they wanted to shoot me when they saw the (Guggenheim Museum design) and now they get $500 million a year in revenue to the city.

"I don't know how to overcome (critics), it's just part of the thing."

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