Gehry’s Art Gallery of Ontario is Retro Frank Gehry at His Finest

Art Gallery of Ontario

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) completed an extensive renovation in 2008 that transformed its building on Dundas Street in Toronto. Work began in 2004 and cost $276 million. Led by Frank Gahry, Instead of starting afresh, Gehry took the existing building and its somewhat chaotic slew of previous expansions and unified it into a functioning whole. The expansion was a controversial strategy, with many people concerned that a large amount of money was being spent without obtaining a signature Gehry building.

Upon entering the building under an expressive glass-clad cantilevered upper gallery (see above) one enters a low ticket hall. Passing through this area and into the Walker Court at the heart of the building, this well-lit atrium space shows one of Gehry’s most dramatic interventions in the old fabric of the building:

Art Gallery of Ontario

In order to reach the stair, shown above, visitors must walk upstairs to the upper level of the atrium and walk around the perimeter. The new portion of the construction is finished in light-coloured wood and touches the existing early 20th Century building very lightly:

Art Gallery of Ontario

The insertion and interaction of the new within and attached to the old looks strange when compared to most of Gehry’s recent highly sculptural work, but when looked at in relation to his work from the late 1970s through mid 1980s it clearly references an important part of his tradition.

Frank Gehry's House
Frank Gehry's House, photo by Kristo

His own home in Santa Monica is the best example from this period. By taking a “Dutch Colonial” home in a typical Santa Monica neighbourhood and  building an armature around it, while also strategically removing portions of the old house, Gehry deconstructed the experience of home life itself (see a collection of photos and drawings on Arch Daily here). He also collaged together many of the building blocks of suburbia in an unexpected juxtaposition- one that disturbed his neighbours. They obviously had no problem with corrugated metal or chain link fences (they were common on other homes in the area) until Gehry decided to get creative with them.

Moving up further into the AGO via the curved stair shown earlier,visitors move through the exposed structure (most original steel) of the atrium and then through the roof, where the outside of the stair has a glazed strip that runs at eye level.The views open up when you get above the original atrium, giving you a view of the jumble of parts that make up the building.

Art Gallery of Ontario

At the top of the stair, the modern/contemporary galleries are spread over two floors with high ceilings and glass walls to the north and south. The south wall is protected from the sun by exterior shading that appears to be operable.

Art Gallery of Ontario

Moving back down the building requires you to go down a similar stair to the one on the north, except the view is better here as you descend into a park with the CN Tower in the background:

Art Gallery of Ontario

There are also views of Will Alsop’s building for the Ontario College of Art and Design next door:

Art Gallery of Ontario

The stairs, clad in grey metal, do reference the Bilbao/Disney Concert Hall side of Frank Gehry. They also go back a bit further in his career, specifically his Vitra Design Museum of 1990 in Germany. The Vitra project was not conceived entirely as a sculptural object, as I would argue works like Bilbao are, but was designed equally as an experience. The Vitra is also formally similar, one only has to look at the enclosed twisting stair to see the lineage:

Vitra Design Museum, photo by Rory Hyde
Vitra Design Museum, photo by Rory Hyde

The other impressive interior spaces in the refurbished AGO is the Galleria Ilalia. It cantilevers over the sidewalk on the front of the building and it is attached to the old front wall of the museum. Unlike other Gehry buildings I have been to, it is very well-detailed and well-proportioned.

Art Gallery of Ontario

The weakest part of the building is its unfortunate exterior on the south side. Hovering over the adjacent park and facing downtown, the façade is a particularly obnoxious shade of blue metal that looks more like a roadside office park from the 1980s than an urban museum. The sight of the AGO next to Alsop’s OCAD building reads like an obnoxious “battle of the starchitects”:

Art Gallery of Ontario with Ontario College of Art & Design

It’s a shame they succumbed to the use of coloured titanium on the exterior of the building, which reminds me of Gehry’s equally obnoxious Experience Music Project in Seattle. That aside, I think it is a fantastic building and a sensitive and sensible re-use of an existing asset. I would like to see more renovation projects from Gehry’s office- they rose to the challenge in Toronto in a way that is far more nuanced and effective than on many new-build projects.

Ranking Architectural Academics: Suspect Methodology

I came across a link to a paper titled “Rating the Architecture Professors in Research: 2010 Report” by Garry Stevens, PhD from the Key Centre for Architectural Sociology this morning on Twitter by David Neustein (@dneus). Stevens compiled this report by obtaining lists of the faculty in every architecture department in a variety of predominantly English-speaking countries (see the report for details). It covers approximately 3,000 faculty members at 160 architecture schools. The academics are rated in percentiles, from the 90th down to zero. The rankings are entirely based on the number of time the academics are found in two databases: The online catalogue of the RIBA Architectural Library and The Avery Index.

While the author went to great lengths to avoid double-counting and to search for multiple spellings of the same name, I am not sure the methodology really gets to his goal of identifying “excellence in research.” Some of the academics that hold top (90th percentile) ranking are not a surprise: Annmarie Adams, Beatriz Colomina , Kenneth Frampton and Kazys Varnelis all have published a large amount of writing as active university faculty members. On the other hand, there are big-name architects in this top list (Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne  for example) who would clearly come up frequently in a database search but are not known for prolific academic-quality writing.

I did a search of the RIBA catalogue and found many journal articles that referenced Thom Mayne, but I couldn’t find a single one he had actually written himself. I am sure Mr. Stevens spent more time on this than I did this morning, but if the entire point of the project was to identify the strongest architectural research academics in the English-speaking world, I’m not sure a bunch of “starchitects” belong on the list.

This is not to say the list is completely useless- I actually found the method of ranking rather interesting. I have seen somewhat similar rankings of entire departments in the past, but never individual faculty members ranked top to bottom like this.

Castle Overload: a trip to Cardiff and Swansea, Wales

Wales has a slogan that is something along the lines of “Wales has more castles per square mile than probably anywhere else in the world.” While they do use the “probably,” (to avoid a lawsuit I’m sure) I did manage to see four of them on a three day trip last week.

The trip began with a short (about two hour) train ride from Paddington to Cardiff Central last Wednesday evening to meet up with my wife who had already arrived to attend a conference. Our hotel, cleverly named “Sleeperz” could not have been any closer to the train line running into the station:

Trains Near Cardiff Central Station

The hotel was actually very nice, and the location near the station is well-situated for walking around Cardiff. The windows were nearly soundproof, so the trains weren’t an issue and allowed me to see a wide variety of passenger trains that seemed to be far more eclectic than what you’d typically see in London.

I ventured to Cardiff Castle on my first full day in town. The first line of its Wikipedia entry summarises its history beautifully:

Cardiff Castle (Welsh: Castell Caerdydd) is a medieval castle and Victorian architecture Gothic revival mansion, transformed from a Norman keep erected over a Roman fort in Cardiff, the capital of Wales.

The Castle also has a small museum where a portion of the original Roman wall has been excavated, and there is a Welsh military museum in the basement. On the castle ground, the keep was (quite literally) the high point of my visit. It was once connected at high level to the outer wall, but when landscape architect Capability Brown was hired to re-plan the grounds approximatley 200 years ago he had many of the ancient structures on the site dismantled and had the moat around the keep filled in (it’s since been re-watered).

The Keep, Cardiff Castle

Moving indoors, the house at the Castle has seen the most drastic changes over the years. While Henry Holland made changes in the late 18th Centrury, it was the Third Marquess of Bute and his architect William Burges that reinvented it during the Victorian era. The lavish interiors have recently been restored to most of their original beauty. This tightly-cropped shot shows the ceiling in the “Arab Room,” which was often used as a guest bedroom:

Arab Room, Cardiff Castle

For a more complete history of Cardiff Castle, there is an excellent archeological summary here, provided by Cardiff University.

I spent most of the rest of the day wandering around Cardiff. It’s hard to miss Millenium Stadium by Populous Architects (formerly HOK Sport)- it’s wedged between the Taff River and the city. I’d probably like the stadium more if it weren’t for the fading coloured panels that encircle it, it already looks dated. In any case, here it is poking out from behind a number of other buildings:

Millenium Stadium

The rest of the day was a whirlwind tour of Victorian and Edwardian arcades:

Arcade in Cardiff

Followed by a trip to Cardiff Bay:

Millenium Centre and Surroundings

While nearly every photo of the Millenium Centre (designed by Capita Architecture) shows only the enormous front facade with Welsh lettering cut out of metal panels above the entrance, I think it’s important to show the surroundings. The area surrounding the development at Cardiff Bay is pretty decrepit, and I question spending so much money building a shopping/culture/entertainment area when there are numerous underused older buildings standing literally across the street. The Millenium Centre is not impressive as Architecture, it’s poorly detailed and built from a cacophony of external material that come together awkwardly at the corners:

Millenium Centre detail

The back of the building is a sea of red brick and security devices:

Security at the Millenium Centre

The high security is owing to it’s location next door to the Senedd, the National Assembly for Wales (by Richard Rogers):

National Assembly of Wales

I’ll reserve judgment on this building for now. I am sure it looks better in nicer weather, and I didn’t get to go inside.

The following day, I traveled via train to nearby Caerphilly where I saw Caerphilly Castle:

Caerphilly Castle Model

That’s not the real Castle, it’s a model that stands across the moat from the “real” thing:

Caerphilly Castle Water Defenses

The word real is in quotes because much of the castle was built in the 1930s as part of an extremely ambitious restoration (reconstruction) process funded by several of the Marquesses of Bute- the same family behind the work done at Cardiff Castle. Replica siege engines have been built, and the Great Hall has been restored. Not only were demolished buildings at the Castle rebuilt, a large part of the town that had grown up around the Castle walls was torn down in order to re-water the moat in the mid 20th Century. The Castle was originally built in the 1200s, and is one of the largest in the UK. It’s an early example of a concentric castle- the combination of outer walls and lakes would have made the castle very difficult to approach.

Caerphilly Castle

The next day, my wife and ventured over to Swansea, an hour from Cardiff by train. The remnants of a castle site next to a fountain and central square which had a temporary merry-go-round set up:

Central Plaza in Swansea

Note the exceptionally hideous BT Tower that sits directly behind the castle. It appeared that some condos were under construction about four metres from the side of the ruins as well, but it was hard to tell whether they’d been stalled by the recession or not.

We also ventured to Mumbles by bus. Mumbles (don’t you love the name) was a Victorian seaside resort and has the requisite pier to prove it. Too bad they couldn’t install some Old-Timey wrought iron CCTV cameras:

Mumbles Pier Entrance

Mumbles, in reality, has a history that stretches back far beyond the 1890s- the area has been inhabited for about 3,000 years. Neighbouring Oystermouth contains the ruins of a castle (aptly named Oystermouth Castle). We saw people in costumes running around inside and assumed they had broken in to play a role-playing game, but I later discovered that they were most likely rehearsing for one of the open air Shakespeare productions that take place inside during the summer.

Oystermouth Castle

I’ll leave you with a final image of “The Big Apple” in Mumbles, tragically damaged by a reckless driver (according to the bus driver who dropped us off there). It is supposedly under repair:

The Big Apple near Mumbles Pier

Recent books: “194x” by Andrew Shanken and “Militant Modernism” by Owen Hatherley

Two recent reads on Modernism:

194x by Andrew M. Shanken (2009, U. of Minnesota Press)

Andrew is a assistant professor of Architectural History at the University of California, Berkeley. I was familiar with the topic of this book prior to reading it because I studied with him while I was a graduate student there a few years ago.

Andrew Shanken looks at the “culture of anticipation” that arose during World War II in the United States as architects planned for the year “194x”, the year the war would end and the austerity caused first by the Great Depression and then by the war would finally end. He tracks the steady rise of interest in planning, as architects envision themselves as controlling a complete redesign of society in the postwar era.

Shanken spends a lot of time in the book looking at how many of the well-known  architects of 1940s worked with prominent companies to promote their ideas and in turn tie them to consumer culture. While the industry magazines of the day did deal with the issue of “planning’, some of the most prominent publications of the day were actually produced in pamphlet format by private companies like Zurn Plumbing or Revere Copper and Brass. In pamphlets that have seemingly little to do with their products, architects advocated for every citizen to take part in civic planning (though there are several funny examples of the “planning” concepts being used to sell mundane products like toilets or flooring).

As the end of the war drew close, it became clear to many large companies that an expanded version of the status quo would suit their needs better than a wholesale change of both the means of housing production and the role of the government in society. As Congress turned away from planning and Keynesian economics fell out of favor with a turn towards classical capitalism, modern architecture was singled out. As Shanken points out in the afterward, the battle between collectivism and laissez-faire capitalism has been a steady feature in American society with each generation seeing it play out differently. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, an individualistic worldview and lassez-faire economics combined with massive Defense Deparment infrastructure investments in road-building would lead to the auto dependent suburbs that quickly surrounded every American city. Large-scale regional planning of the type imagined during the War was generally not implemented.

The planning that did occur was often the most destructive sort. Slum clearance, a popular topic in planing literature of the 1940s, did happen to large areas of many cities during the 1950s and 1960s. Horribly disruptive and deliberately targeting the poor and minority groups, cities often bulldozed acres of housing with no clear plan as to what would replace it. I would love to have another chapter in this book that traces the lineage of the planning movements of the World War II era into the 1950s to see how the Utopian visions of that era ended up being very selectively deployed.

I think that Shanken is most successful in setting the tone for the era of the 1940s. Most architects hadn’t seen a significant amount of work in 15 years as the war drew to a close. There was going to be a housing crisis when soldiers returned from abroad contributing to a predicted postwar employment crises. This book does an excellent job of explaining how this scenario provided the perfect opportunity for architects to combine European modernism with American capitalism and then in turn sell it to the general public with Utopian visions of a drastically changed world. If you are interested understanding mid 20th Century American politics and consumer culture, this book is a must-read.

Militant Modernism by Owen Hatherley (2009, O Books)

Owen Hatherley, writer of the blog Sit Down Man, You’re A Bloody Tragedy,  has written a short book that asks on the first page “can we, should we, try to excavate utopia?” While this book most certainly deals with architecture, it also delves into modernity in film, sexual politics and theater. The book is divided into four sections, each of which can be read independently.

The common thread through the four sections is desire to return to a modernism of everyday life, rather than the timid “Ikea modernism” we are left with today (Hatherley states that “Modernism has resurged, but in much the same way a Labour government is no longer a Labour government).

The first section on architecture is the strongest, but I may just be predisposed to feel that way because of my personal affinity for brutalism. The chapter looks at the development of brutalism as it was deployed in British housing estates during the 1960s, particularly by the Smithsons. He makes the point that the Smithsons were making a critique of ‘classical’ modernism, something that I feel is often forgotten – particularly when brutalism is discussed in the United States. “It is an attack on the purism and anti-urbanism of their predecessors,” replacing the picturesque and the spaced towers of miesian modernism with a dense network of internal streets. Most of all, it would “house the poor, be part of the new welfare state, it would be glamorous.”

Moving in to the second section, on Soviet Modernism of the 1920s, is a look at a chapter of architectural history that has been to a large degree ignored. I found the most interesting part of this chapter to be the proposals for disurbanism put forward by sociologist Moisei Ginzburg in 1930. Opposing the idea of collective planned spaces under socialism, he advocated a form of development where vast networks of people live in transportable pods and connected by transportation networks. Hatherley points out the fact that this is the extreme of both collectivism and individualism, and that it is a prophecy of what Los Angeles was to become in the second half of the 20th Century (but far more extreme than what Los Angeles actually became). The paper architecture (and some actual realized architecture) of this era is something I probably need to become more familiar with to fully appreciate this section.

The following two sections, reading modern film and it’s relation to sexual politics and theatre, weren’t as strong as the architectural chapters. They do help support the argument for modernism as a total break from the past- a new way of thinking and living that offered “possible outlines of a world after capitalism.” Perhaps we don’t literally need the exact type of socialist utopias envisioned in the first half of the last century, but it is quite sad that we don’t bother dreaming of a world that could be different from our own- even as we watch the foundations of our system collapse around us.

This is a very thought-provoking book, and a bit hard to find in the US at present.