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Transformation AGO: Alien views and the Toronto Look

November 7th, 2008

By: Shawn Micallef

In Toronto the presence of the AGO along Dundas has been as familiar as a family member. Always there, reliable, maybe even taken for granted. When the big fence went up around it for the Transformation project a couple years ago — and when it ultimately closed earlier this year for the final months of the renovation — the absence was suddenly the only thing we could notice when in the area. I say we because just about everytime I’ve passed by the AGO from one direction or another, there are at least a few sidewalk foremen or women watching the construction take place. Chatter about the building elsewhere — at parties, overheard in the workplace — is more and more frequent. Perhaps the upshot of being closed for a while is that anticipation builds in a way it otherwise couldn’t.

I love the view above of the new AGO from Grange Park. With the blend of new and old, there is something quintessentially Toronto in this angle. This, I believe, is the elusive “Toronto look” that we often fumble around looking for as we try to define, without success, what Toronto looks like in our mind’s eye. This city is often able to effortlessly accommodate Victorian and Edwardian structures — in this rare case even older, as The Grange house dates to 1817 and the Georgian period — next door to contemporary skyscrapers and modern buildings. Architectural and heritage purists may disagree, but a good heritage building can keep up with and match wits with a contemporary building anytime, and The Grange does this just fine.

This mix of old and new also prevents the building from becoming simply a museum piece, preserved in architectural formaldehyde as if time has not passed a minute since it was built. Inside, The Grange does all the things it should, showing us how folks lived back when the Family Compact ruled Upper Canada, but to get inside we now have to pass through one of the new contemporary art spaces that Frank Gehry’s firm has created, always reminding us that it belongs as much to us today as it did the Boulton family of the nineteenth century. Kind of like how Toronto itself works, always evolving, where the very old is mixed in with the very new — along with everything in between.

The view to the south from the AGO has always been special, with a clear view down John Street to the hump of the erstwhile Skydome. Standing here you get a sense of the power of the early aristocratic families who could lay out streets so the view from their front porch was magnificent. In our Toronto we can now climb to the upper galleries and look south to the lake, a brand new view that includes a rare vista down the middle of a street, all made possible by a planning decision made nearly 200 years ago. Conversely, looking north, the new AGO can be seen like few other buildings in Toronto can: unimpeded and from a distance. Walking north from King or Queen — especially in the winter when the leaves are off the trees — the AGO will rise in front of us, framing the Grange below with a blue titanium sky. It’s likely this will become as iconic a Toronto view as the one of Old City Hall seen when walking up Bay Street.

This week I saw two cranes working on the “Barnacle Staircase” on the back of the building. Gehry’s structures don’t look like the buildings we’re use to (though his prolific work in the last decade or two have started to change that) and the far-out alien contortions of the metal look like something from of a 1970s sci-fi film with the cranes acting as some kind of robotic machine picking at the mysterious creature. When I encounter buildings like this, I always wish I could have been a fly on the wall when the construction workers were first shown the plans. “You want us to do what with what,” I imagine they say. Or maybe not. Maybe the prospect of working on something like this is as exciting as standing outside it and looking up, waiting for it to open, anticipating when we’ll get to wander around inside ourselves.

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