Architect Frank Gehry Helps Gallery Renew Itself

The Galleria Italia in Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario

The Art Gallery of Ontario’s 180-metre-long Galleria Italia, though dramatic, is subdued by architect Frank Gehry’s usual standards.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

THE FIRST THING to say about controversial architect Frank Gehry’s extensive makeover of the Art Gallery of Ontario is that it’s no Bilbao. This is a good thing.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the project that really put Gehry (and the Spanish city of Bilbao) on the map, was a jaw-dropper when it opened in 1997. From the outside it looks very little like a building and very much like the shavings from a massive hunk of aluminum. A bold concept, and acceptable, perhaps, if you’re starting from scratch, have a showcase waterfront location and nothing to lose.

The AGO met none of those criteria. The gallery, one of North America’s largest (with 73,000 pieces in its collection), has existed since 1900, largely in a building from the first three decades of last century, with some unfortunate later additions. Its block-long front presses up against Dundas Street, an important, but narrow, thoroughfare in downtown Toronto. This greatly reduces the scope for an eye-popping façade: you couldn’t stand back far enough to appreciate it.

Furthermore, the AGO and its patrons have always tended towards the conservative. While it does host some impressively cutting-edge temporary shows, and isn’t deficient in any important visual-art category, in its permanent collection its strongest suits are Canadian art, especially works by the Group of Seven (active in the 1920s), and European art from the medieval and renaissance periods. Radical it isn’t, so it’s a bit surprising to hear AGO director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum say that Gehry was “the only person we thought of or talked to” in 2000 when they were planning the gallery’s giant revamping, which would cost $276 million and add nearly 50 per cent more display space.

The appeal of Gehry was substantial: he grew up in Toronto and spent part of his childhood literally around the corner from the AGO, but he’d never designed anything in Canada. The AGO had decided that it wanted something—and someone—who would make a statement. Not too much of a statement, mind, and therein lay the rub. Could Gehry crank it down a few notches?

Happily, he could, and the exercise has turned out very well. His expected flourishes are there—the lovely wooden staircase spiralling up from the central court looks like a pencil sharpener made it—but the 180-metre-long Galleria Italia, a glass-and-Douglas-fir concourse running the length of the building’s front, is subdued by Gehry standards, and his work in the galleries themselves so subtle as to go unnoticed unless you’re properly prompted:

“Think about how you’re feeling as you move through the space,” suggested Teitelbaum. There’s a sense of airiness and simplicity. “What I hear over and over again is, ‘This is a building I want to be in.’”

“Effortless” and “relaxed” is how the Toronto Star described it at its 2008 opening. It may, said the New York Times, “be one of Mr. Gehry’s most gentle and self-possessed designs.” It stands back to allow the gallery’s artwork to be enjoyed. And it adds one more piece to the collection.



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