Transformation AGO
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Transformation AGO

2007_09_26AGOscape.jpgPhoto by marco 2000.
On Monday night, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) hosted a members-only event to provide an inside look at its ongoing renovations before it shuts its doors to the public for its last phase (to be completed sometime in 2008). Dubbed “Transformation AGO,” and overseen by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, the AGO is one of the final buildings to be completed as part of Toronto’s “Cultural Renaissance”.
Perhaps people are feeling a little hungover from the controversy of Daniel Libeskind’s ROM Crystal, but reactions to the AGO’s new design have been tepid at best, especially when it became evident early on that Toronto wasn’t getting its own Guggenheim Bilbao.
However, conversations with members of the AGO soon revealed that their approach to architectural rejuvenation was quite different from other “Renaissance” structures—most notably that of its glamorous older sister.

Initially, its planned “transformation” looks underwhelming—a jumble of rectangular structures that lack an overall theme, with Gehry’s spiral staircases stuck like barnacles onto the new five-storey tower.
2007_09_26AGOback.jpgHowever, a team of enthusiastic curators and volunteers soon put the design into context. The AGO itself is made up of a series of additions and expansions that occurred throughout the last century, resulting in its present cluttered appearance. Gehry’s original plan was to bulldoze the entire site and start anew, but the members of the AGO resisted: each addition had its own unique history and character that they were loath to part with, and except for the unfortunate loss of the recent Barton Myers addition, most of the original structure remains.
Reinstallation director Linda Milrod was also quick to mention how much effort was made to ensure the building did not negatively impact the surrounding community (including the creation of a neighbourhood “community consultation” group to contribute to the planning). At two storeys high, most of the structure will share the same horizontal plane as the Victorian row-houses that surround it, and the hockey arena tower will be no higher than the neighbouring Ontario College and Design (OCAD) building. She also stressed that no land was acquired for the renovation; it will not extend more than an inch beyond its historical boundaries.
2007_09_26AGOfront.jpgAnd even though Gehry’s trademark gleaming, curvaceous forms may not be evident in the bones of the building, its circulatory system—the Baroque stairways, the glass-and-wood prow of the Galleria Italia, the titanium cladding on the tower—are unmistakably Gehry.
We got the impression that the AGO decided to concentrate its renovation on functionality rather than its appearance. For instance, the new entrance will be moved to the middle of the building off Dundas Street, allowing visitors to see straight through Walker’s Court into the old Grange (the AGO’s first home). Also, the gallery spaces have been reconfigured to flow around the court, providing visitors with a point of reference that the cavernous and labyrinthine old building sorely lacked. Perhaps the most innovative design is the glass-and-wood façade off Dundas street, which will both house the Galleria Italia sculptures and serve as a “rest stop” for visitors to enjoy a panoramic view of the city. Anyone who has ever visited the Met or the Louvre will appreciate the AGO’s solution to the risk of sensory overload.
A lot of AGO’s renovation choices work in pleasant counterpoint to Daniel Libeskind’s crystalline entity, which was foisted onto the city earlier this year. In the case of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, the point was clearly to create a monumental, internationally-identifiable artifact for the city. Libeskind was hand-picked for the project by ROM director William Thorsell and given free rein for his architectural vision, arguably to the detriment of the existing ROM building as well as the streetscape. In contrast is Gehry—who has similarly had the “starchitect” moniker thrown his way—who subordinated many of his own design preferences (he doesn’t do symmetry, which makes the new entranceway surprising) in response to the concerns of the AGO and the surrounding community. The ROM is bold and daring, the AGO retreating and reflective. The ROM is an expression of one man’s artistic ambition, the other the result of committee and consensus.
Toronto will have to wait and see whether Libeskind’s cantered angles and Spirit House voids will overwhelm or compliment the ROM exhibits, and whether the AGO’s traditional white walls and high ceilings will be aesthetically appropriate or depressingly conventional. Both institutions are scheduled to open with their permanent exhibits in place sometime in 2008.
Photo of wood model by davidcrow. Photo of front face of AGO by My TVC 15.