A monumental moment: Utterly transforming the Art Gallery of Ontario, Frank Gehry has created an exhilarating work of architecture that honours the art it houses, gives new life to Toronto's downtown, and confirms Gehry's stature as one of the world's great creative geniuses.

LISA ROCHON Saturday, November 8, 2008

Frank Gehry has an appetite for more. His architecture craves abundance - for glass canopies hanging perilously from jutting timbers at London's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion; for a floating cloud imagined at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris; even for the grand and occasionally surgical remodelling of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Because Gehry dreams large, new life has been given to Toronto's downtown. The AGO's monumental galleria in Douglas-fir timbers looks more densely planted than a West Coast forest. The central spiral staircase feels more out of control than a careening roller coaster. The titanium panels on the back wall are more blue, more clarifying and more strident than a prairie sky on a winter's day.

Relax: This is not a stylistic flash in the pan by another architect in designer glasses. Thankfully, for Toronto and the rest of Canada, Gehry's transformation of the AGO is inspired not by personal ego but by allowing for a journey that goes deep into art and the city.

It was eight years ago that AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum and the late Kenneth Thomson met with Gehry to spearhead the remarkable renewal. After his father's death, David Thomson became fully engaged by the gallery's transformation. Gehry, an old architectural warrior, came back to his hometown to do what he's always done: direct a compelling piece of theatre. His Toronto playhouse dazzles.

The lush drama begins at the front of the house, where a monumental glass corset held together by giant timber boning spans an entire block of Dundas Street West. At either end of the grand gesture are double-curved masks of glass with glue-laminated fir timbers fully exposed to the elements. To stand beneath the muscular structure could deliver enough of a street show. But the seduction by Gehry sweeps through the entire gallery.

Expect to be treated as both spectator and actor at the new AGO, which opens to the public next Friday. Wind yourself along the serpentine ramp within the entrance lobby, and look down through tear-shaped cuts in the floor to Kenneth Thomson's collection of ship models. Now you're a part of the audience. Stand on the wooden catwalk that surrounds historic Walker Court, and you become an actor on a balcony, with no art to distract you on the walls.

At the back of the gallery, in what used to be the slightly icy sculpture court, Gehry has inserted an intense timber structure to butt up against historic Grange house. Here, one of the world's greatest creative genius of exhilarating forms confronts the pinched Victorian structures built by Ontario's governing officials and pioneering elites. David Altmejd's The Index pushes the point: His work of stuffed birds and squirrels, perched within a wood-and-steel play structure, evokes a postcolonial dread. This is, by far, the darkest part of the AGO's new theatre.

The remodelled AGO, whose budget was in the neighbourhood of a quarter-billion dollars, is as much about looking at art as it is about looking out with fresh eyes to the city. From the second-storey Galleria Italia, there are treetops and the mansard rooftops of 19th-century mansions, as well as the scruffy businesses of Chinatown. The city, its flow of immigrants, its varied ambitions, seem to rise up and smack against the glass. In previous guises - there have been seven expansions since the gallery first opened in the Grange in 1911 - the AGO looked inward, keeping minds focused on the art and bodies safely encased behind walls of brick or precast concrete. With Gehry's redesign, the city seems more protean, more weirdly and wildly forgiving than before.

This is the neighbourhood where British government officials were granted large "park lots" of land in the early 1800s; where, 100 years later, Jews persecuted in Eastern Europe made their way, eventually setting up stalls in Kensington Market. It's where Gehry went to the AGO when he was 8; where carp was purchased with his grandmother to make gefilte fish for the Sabbath; where Gehry's bar mitzvah took place. In November, 1946, Gehry heard Alvar Aalto speak at a free public lecture at the University of Toronto. The humanity of the great Finnish architect resonated profoundly with him.
Compelling, enduring works of architecture communicate in myriad ways. Being inside the monumental Galleria Italia - a space made possible by 26 Toronto families of Italian descent, each contributing $500,000 - feels quite unlike the reading from the street. Instead of a glass corset, the interior reveals a dense collision of curved timbers that conspire, at varying angles, to achieve a sense of warm, life-giving shelter. Or maybe it's like stepping into the belly of a whale, or lying underneath a cedar-strip canoe. Aiming to "tame the scale" of the sculpture gallery, Gehry inserted chunky wooden louvres running horizontally between the vertical columns. Here is evidence of the world-famous humanity of Gehry - his desire to exhilarate us with his forms, rather than punishing us with their audacity.

The capturing of natural light by Gehry - and Craig Webb, senior partner at Gehry International, Architects Inc., who played a critical role on this front - is inspired. The contemporary and historic galleries are often lit not by mere skylights but by soaring volumes that could be called celestial sky rooms. These are vessels of light and shadow, and, because of their ethereal qualities, they may be the most poetic and benevolent of gestures at the redeveloped AGO.

That they were endorsed by Teitelbaum speaks to his dedication not only to Gehry the artist, but to honouring the eyes of the public. To see Paterson Ewen's Comet below a sky room designed as a camera's monumental aperture satisfies a thirst. Elsewhere, works by the Group of Seven hang below enormous, deeply set skylights with snouts pointed at sharp angles so that the light from above never threatens a painting.

The notion that art can and should be experienced as an act of intimacy came to determine the size and materiality of the galleries. Though the AGO has expanded from 486,000 square feet to 583,000 square feet (45,150 to 54,162 square metres), the design seems to constantly refer back to the scale of the human body. Dozens of Gehry's contemporary chaise longues - one version is called Adam, the other is Eve - have been specially designed for the AGO project. The dismountable lounges will be scattered among several galleries, so expect to see people gazing at art while lying down. That they are gorgeous to touch speaks volumes about the sensibility of Gehry versus that of, say, Daniel Libeskind, who produced a series of stainless-steel chairs for the redesigned Royal Ontario Museum that are difficult to approach, let alone curl into.

You will discover the AGO easier to navigate than before. Sited close to the edge of a cleaned-up sidewalk, the front entrance has been placed on central axis to Walker Court, the way it should have been years ago. The contemporary-art galleries are white and airy but interrupted by more intimate galleries dedicated to the work of, say, Betty Goodwin or General Idea.

An AGO Transformation? I think it's better described as an AGO Reformation. So much has changed about the place, which until the 1950s had its senior art curator based in England. Now, contemporary works are being juxtaposed provocatively against salon pieces. Something akin to a ballet barre has been set within inches of small paintings by James Wilson Morrice, the better to invite you to get close to the art. It's the equivalent of resting your elbows on a zinc bar in a Paris brasserie and gazing at the waitress.

Within Thomson's European art collection and its highly subdued textures - walnut flooring, silk on the walls - there is a discreet room clad in copper to contemplate open prayer books; another cube is clad in black granite. To wander into this experience is to lose the noise and speed of the outside world.

And then, with little warning, you are confronted by the violence and passion of Peter Paul Rubens's The Massacre of the Innocents, a 17th-century masterpiece that Philippe de Montebello, soon-to-be-retired director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, still calls his own - he was the underbidder at the auction when Ken Thomson miraculously paid $117-million for the work.

And, yes, despite years of careful planning and design, the project has some flaws. Those ship models are displayed in roller-coaster-like glass cabinets that fight unnecessarily with the tear-shaped cuts in the floor above. The 6,500-square-foot event space, with walls of polka dots cut out from medium-density fibreboard, seems better suited to a child's playroom than to the weddings and corporate events it is meant to attract.

Finally, the back elevation of the gallery lords over the park in an uneasy relationship. There was an attempt to match the floating irreverence of Will Alsop's neighbouring Ontario College of Art & Design by cladding the AGO contemporary-art tower with a wacky, though jarring, tint of blue titanium panels. But the power of the idea has been lost by gallery windows that cast a gloom over the back elevation like a dead TV screen. Still, the five-storey steel tower can be magic at night - when the colour grows subdued, the glass disappears, and the shadows of the city climb around the views.

There have been hits and misses along the road to renew the cultural infrastructure of Toronto. But the public has grown wiser for the effort. Since the Royal Ontario Museum opened its doors last year, there's been a hunger for an institution enlivened by its own internal reinvention, a desire to see how a large public gallery can be a thing of beauty and still matter. The Art Gallery of Ontario pulls back its curtain next week. Gehry's only show in Canada has a little to do with the story of a prodigal son, and a whole lot more to do with architecture that will illuminate long into the future.