To most critics, the architecture of Frank Gehry, FAIA, is inseparably linked to a free-thinking, artsy milieu in Southern California. But if you ask the man himself, it was during his childhood in Toronto, Canada, where he formed his sensibility. Now, the 83-year-old is poised to make a major mark on that city: Early in October, he and a local developer announced plans for a mixed-use complex in downtown Toronto, with a new art gallery, retail and educational space, and three residential towers of 82, 84, and 86 stories.
"I walked around these streets in my childhood. I have an image of a Toronto that doesn't exist any more," Gehry said at the project's unveiling last week. "All that is in my DNA, and I hope it will come out positively in the design of this project."
He's already worked nearby. His sole project in Canada, a 2008 renovation of the city's largest art museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), is a half mile away. It, too, had sentimental value: Gehry recalled taking his first art class there as a kid. That design has been widely praised, but the renovation was too constrained to become an icon like the Guggenheim Bilbao.
The newly proposed Toronto project, on the other hand, would be grand in scale and form. At a press conference last week, Gehry and his client, developer David Mirvish, proposed a complex that would cover more than an entire city block. It would have the three towers, which would be the city's tallest residential buildings; a substantial complex of high-end retail; a 60,000-square-foot gallery for Mirvish's art collection; and gallery and classroom lecture space for the nearby Ontario College of Art & Design University (OCAD).
In models and preliminary renderings, Gehry has suggested that the towers would be defined by different formal languages and perhaps different materials: one largely rectilinear; one featuring cantilevered, roughly square floors; and one that is Y-shaped in plan, crystalline and largely glazed, like his recent 8 Spruce Street project in lower Manhattan. The rectilinear tower, to be built in the first phase, will feature academic and gallery space for OCAD. The second phase will be a full block with the remaining two towers, the gallery, and commercial space in a mid-rise base adorned with metallic ribbons.
The new gallery would connect to an emerging cultural district in the area, including the new home of the Toronto International Film Festival immediately across the street to the west and the headquarters of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation just to the east. Then there’s Gehry’s AGO itself, visible several blocks north at the top of John Street.
In an interview, Gehry said he's most concerned with two things: adding to the city skyline in an attractive way, and making the towers "knit into the fabric of the city." Speaking in a grand event space he designed for the AGO, he said: "Each building type has its limitations and possibilities, so you explore the possibilities and you solve the limitations. I think I do that with every building, no matter how high it is or where it is. I think if you look at the Beekman Tower [8 Spruce Street], it pretty much lived up to what I was trying to do. It works. I don't want to be Pollyanna, that limitations are opportunities, but in a way they are."
Mirvish spoke of the scheme as a work of art. "I am not building condos," he said. "I am building three sculptures for people to live in." His motivations for the project, the 68-year-old Mirvish said, are to work with Gehry and to do a transformative piece of city-building. "I love architecture because it tells us who we are as a people," he said. "And on that basis, I've been talking to Frank Gehry for years."