Frank Gehry, ever the thin white Duke of world architecture, has, with his new design for the Art Gallery of Ontario, wrought yet another change in his work and widened the point spread in Toronto's architecture wars. His new AGO puts it between the uprights for the Big Dumb Box as the way to good architecture in the future. Too bad some "world-famous" architects - like the one birthing a dinosaur at the ROM - haven't yet caught on to the virtues of the BDB.
Gehry's scheme is a brilliantly simple three-parter. First, a gigantic swooping visor of titanium and glass is slapped across the mishmash of the gallery's Dundas Street face.
At ground level, it creates a sheltering, block-long canopy for visitors and passersby. Above, it encloses a glazed interior promenade with views of a string of Victorian houses on the north side of Dundas, relief from and a way of getting oriented to the unavoidable rabbit warren of display galleries that make the AGO what we've all come to love.
The second simple move is the retrieval of the gallery's original Walker Court as the focal entrance to the complex, and the application of full skylighting to it.
Finally, Gehry, having executed a long pass out in the street, goes vertical with a drop kick into Grange Park. Confronted with the immovable heritage Grange building, he drives into the sky with a simple glazed cube looking like nothing so much as a banal 70s office block. It's actually two storeys of new galleries sitting on a base of restaurants and social facilities, and it does a few important things.
Its back (south) wall has a huge waterscape painted on the glass like advertising on a TTC bus. Why? Gehry's worried about the pressure on the Grange and its park, which is increasingly unsavoury. He's trying to peace it out and make it soft again. The blue of the water mural with the green of the park will create an artificial/natural oasis of water and landscape behind the building.
As a subtle reference to Lake Ontario - a kind of billboard calling out across the city to its real counterpart - this applied artwork puts the whole implacably artificial complex in direct relation to its deep natural and historical context. Imagine standing inside, seven floors above the park on a cold winter's day like today and seeing the light sparkle through the "water."
The only place this powerful marshalling of large, simple elements loses it is in the "lovers' stair,"where Gehry has indulged in his intricately organic form-making. A narrow (force those people into one another's arms!) twisting umbilicus rises from the core of Walker Court to the upper reaches of the new galleries cube. This is the sole jarring note in a tour de force of sweet simplicity.
The titanium carapace on the front of the AGO is taut, crisp and simple. It won't need aircraft design programs to build, like his recent work. The Walker Court skylight is simple to the point of being a reproduction of 19th-century techniques. And the cube is just dead dumb.
Which puts Gehry, once again, back at the forefront of contemporary design, with just a Big Dumb Box.
Big Dumb Boxes are great because they work. Why are there so many "loft" projects in this town right now? Because people want simple, high, airy and light - they want places that let them, even ask them to, take charge of their surroundings and live their lives any way they want. We are so inundated with electronic images today that we've got to find simplicity somewhere. With all the visual noise of contemporary life, there's nothing like a sweet, neutral box to spend some time in.
This works in public buildings as well as it does at home, and for lots of reasons. Straight and simple means you can change the programming of a building any time. Straight and simple means you can control costs and control schedules. Straight and simple means you won't be having lots of maintenance headaches. And it means you can use all the money saved to have some fun and meet your obligation to do great architecture.
Fortunately, most of Gehry's competitors in the best Toronto arts building competition have also placed themselves firmly within the Big Dumb Box wave of the future.
Will Alsop's OCAD is just a Big Dumb Box with legs. The building part is as stupid as it gets - a rectangle with minimal interior finishes, ready for those exuberant students to do their worst to its guts, egging them on with the erratic placement of off-the-shelf windows. Cheap building quickly out of the way, all the rest of the money goes into the insane legs and glitzy colours. Which create an exuberant embracing of the public realm unprecedented in Canada, and perhaps the world.
The Canadian Opera Company (COC) project, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts at Queen and University, is probably the most fascinating of the BDBs, because it rejects the glitz of add-ons. No murals or visors, no legs. Diamond and Schmitt's opera house is essential Big Dumb Boxism, so essential that it intentionally vaporizes itself. Only at night, through the use of nonmaterial light, does this box become other than ordinary, as it glows and welcomes the city. Restrained and self-assured, it points toward an exciting alternative future for the Box.
Unfortunately, the ROM doesn't seem to have got the message. At the office for Daniel Libeskind's addition, lots of likeable, well-meaning architects are throwing themselves into making his confused collection of shards try to be a building.
Museum CEO William Thorsell deserves infinite credit for taking on an institution he had no experience with and putting the hammer down for great architecture into the bargain. He's infectiously excited about being able to bring the ROM's unequalled collections to light again in a proper museological manner. And his advocacy of great architecture as an obligation of cultural institutions is extremely convincing. The only problem is, with the Libeskind addition - part of a new "sculptural" school of architecture, as Thorsell labels it - the ROM boss thinks he's got great architecture. Unfortunately, he hasn't.
The Libeskind carbuncle isn't sculptural, it's hypersculptural, a triumph of psychotic form over content. It's a dinosaur in more ways than one, a Tyrannosaurus rex lowering its ravening head over Bloor Street to gobble up unwary passersby. It threatens destruction instead of offering welcome. It hurts its noble predecessor, a grand old part of Toronto's heritage. It destroys a genteel street. And it may be a technical and financial nightmare.
It's a dinosaur, too, because it's the result of an old way of thinking. The idea of the avant-garde rose a hundred years ago, as we first confronted multinationalism and its attendant technologies. The Futurists, the Dadaists, the Expressionists all tried to keep humanity ahead of the engulfing wave of inhuman military-industrial processes. Those art movements helped, but they left us with the legacy of art as a contrary, over-intellectualized pursuit. And a lot of artists are still contrary and over-intellectualized. Like Libeskind.
We don't have to bow before the avant-garde just because it tries to make us feel like stupid, ill-informed fools. We don't have to accept "art" that hurts our sensibilities. And we certainly don't have to accept it from a guy who tells us he's been inspired by the ROM's own crystal collection when he's already done four crystal museums elsewhere in the world and just wants to put another one of his trademark scenes of destruction and cacophony here.
Hypersculpture isn't architecture. It's bad art. It's nasty, brutish and limiting. Fortunately, it's losing the game here in Toronto. Big Dumb Boxes win by a landslide, three to one.
Peter Ferguson heads the Tiger Dunlop Unit for Regional Design and is artistic director of the Kimberley Film Society.