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Toronto Real Estate MOCA moves into an ugly-beautiful building that changed a Toronto neighbourhood

Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Art is now housed in the former Northern Aluminum Co. building in Brockton Village.

Ben Rahn/A-Frame/A-Frame

In modelling, the term for someone who possesses unconventional, rough, or odd features is “ugly beautiful.” Dominican model Omahyra Mota is often trotted out as an example, but the concept was around long before Ms. Mota was born: An agency established in London, England, in 1969 called itself “Ugly Models,” and it proved so popular a NYC branch opened in 2007.

If there were some sort of organization for ugly-beautiful buildings, 158 Sterling Rd., built by the Northern Aluminum Company in 1919-20, would surely be a star.

It’s not that the new headquarters of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is a ghastly eyesore. No, what the building lacks in refinement, it more than makes up with its commanding height of 10 storeys (like many fashion models) in what was, a century ago, a low-rise, railway-fed industrial zone in the Brockton Village neighbourhood of Toronto. So tall, it quickly became a landmark for locals since, for decades, it was the only such edifice for kilometres.

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In the 1920s, the building, seen here in the distance, was the only tall structure for kilometres.

City of Toronto Archives

Designed by Winnipeg architect John W. Woodman of Woodman & Cubbage (in collaboration with American structural engineer Claude Allen Porter Turner, inventor of the flat-slab construction method), this vertical factory produced cooking utensils, bottle caps, appliance accessories and parts for the Ford Motor Company until the beginning of the 21st century, when it was under the ownership of Tower Automotive, an independent auto-parts manufacturer. After sitting vacant for a decade, developer Castlepoint Numa acquired the site and announced plans for an entire district, which included an ornate, impressive residential building that was later cancelled.

The one thing 158 Sterling Rd. never was, however, was an ornate, impressive office tower. Commanding from afar, yes, but a sidewalk examination reveals an unconventional, rough nature. To wit: The first two storeys are raw, pebble-encrusted, poured concrete; no effort was made to smooth, polish or make it seem to be anything other than what it is (and this, remember, was four decades before Brutalism made rough concrete fashionable).

The firm that adapted the building to the musem's needs took a warts-and-all approach to the restoration.

Ben Rahn/A-Frame/A-Frame

Even above the decorative band between the second and third storeys, the infill between the exposed concrete pilasters doesn’t look to be made of hard, smooth, expensive brick, but rather what one might use to construct an outbuilding. The windows, which could’ve been as modern as aluminum by spanning from buff-coloured pilaster to pilaster and stretched from floor-to-ceiling, are instead odd, punched affairs that appear far too small for such a muscular composition.

Only at the top, where a somewhat fine row of dentil moulding decorates the cornice, does 158 Sterling even begin to approach architectural refinement.

“We’re the architects, but it’s not about the architecture,” agrees Peter Clewes, principal of architectsAlliance, the firm that Castlepoint Numa charged with adapting the century-old building to MOCA’s needs. “As Toronto grows up and tries to become a more international, outwardly-looking city … this gallery is about [international] contemporary art, which I think shows a real cultural confidence that is very rare in this country.”

Dave LeBlanc writes that a walk through MOCA feels more like a backstage tour of an off-Broadway theatre rather than a traditional gallery.

Ben Rahn/A-Frame/A-Frame

Perhaps that’s why Mr. Clewes and the heritage experts at ERA Architects allowed the building to live its next 100 years with warts and all. The slickness and almost ‘corporate’ showmanship that applies to the Art Gallery of Ontario doesn’t apply here; walk around MOCA – whether gazing at the artwork or the rough mushroom columns that hold up the ceiling – and it feels rather like one is on a backstage tour of a feisty off-Broadway theatre rather than a place where groundbreaking exhibitions will occur.

The original concrete columns are still in place, and not particularly beautiful.

Ben Rahn/A-Frame/A-Frame

And speaking of those mushroom columns, they’re nasty-beautiful: “You know they used terrible concrete: They used beach sand, round aggregate, old baby carriages and things for reinforcement,” Mr. Clewes jokes, as ERA’s Philip Evans laughs and points to the weaving expansion-joint line of the terrazzo floors to further illustrate the ugly-beautiful workmanship.

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“It’s kind of hand-done … they’re never meeting on a right angle,” Mr. Evans says with a chuckle. “I hadn’t noticed it until it was all cleaned up.”

Juxtaposed with the building's rough-hewn columns and wonky floors are the museum's creamy white walls and amenities such as this café.

Ben Rahn/A-Frame/A-Frame

But make no mistake, 158 Sterling has been cleaned up. A great deal. As juxtaposition to the wonky floors and pockmarked columns, there are smooth, creamy-white walls bursting with art. There is new HVAC overhead, snazzy office space for the MOCA team behind frosted glass, and an espresso-and-cookie-stand in the lobby that’s as smart looking as anything on Queen West (MOCA’s old location was on Queen West in an old textile factory). And interventions by architectsAlliance to extend the lobby space are not only clean and minimalist, the roofline mimics the old saw-tooth shaped roof of the one-storey portion of the building that had to come down.

The lobby was extended in a clean and minimalist fashion.

Ben Rahn/A-Frame/A-Frame

It’s now a perfect place for showcasing challenging, unsettling work, such as the current sound/video installation Now (2015) by Chantal Akerman, full of fast-moving images and thundering war-like sounds, or the coming The Life of a Dead Tree by Mark Dion, which will see an entire ash tree, along with its inhabitants, assembled on the building’s third floor. An examination of the “ecosystems a dead tree continues to propagate” will be featured as well, says MOCA artistic director November Paynter.

“We felt that that was an important relationship to the building, the idea of bringing back life into this neighbourhood, and into a building that had been dormant for quite some time.”

As MOCA’s new home celebrates its centenary, there is so much life here now the building seems to pulsate with beauty, and, yes, with ugliness too ... just like life.

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