What Good Can a Gehry Do?

“We are a very good A-minus city,” David Mirvish, whose proposed Frank Gehry condo complex will be glitzier than any so far, told Toronto Life. But what good can starchitecture do for a city?

Simon Lewsen is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. His work has appeared in ...

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In a much-quoted speech at the Empire Club last year, David Mirvish—the Toronto theatre mogul, art dealer, and property developer—complained about his home town’s architectural conservatism: “The made-in-Toronto solution is ‘fit in with what exists,’” he said. “Don’t put your head up too high, don’t stick out.” Mirvish wants to stick out: his proposed Frank Gehry condo complex—with two towers, retail and commercial space, a small gallery for his private collection, and a second OCAD University campus—will be taller and more ostentatious than any residential development in the city.

Gehry’s current model is a scaled-down version of the initial proposal, but it’s still wildly extravagant, with its cantilevers and cascades of textured glass. The plans have been rushed through briskly. Mirvish brought Gehry on in 2011 and got council’s approval last July. He bristled at having to wait so long—he sometimes implies that the city is unreceptive to real art and architecture—but by Toronto standards, three years isn’t so bad. As anybody who’s followed the transit debates of the last two decades knows, Toronto urban planning can be sluggish when there’s public money at stake. When the cash is on the table, the pace picks up.

Canadians can look to Gehry’s asymmetrical skyscrapers as the shape of things to come. Even if the towers don’t get built (and that’s unlikely), this won’t be the last time that a wealthy, aging business leader offers his city a massive cash infusion and expects, in return, to impose his vision on the skyline. The private sector has always had a hand in shaping Toronto—the Royal Alexandra Theatre (1907), for instance, was financed by a league of civic-minded gentlemen—but the business community is arguably more influential now than ever. Many previous Canadian cultural centres were built during the postwar heyday, when the fervour over Expo 67 and the country’s centennial spurred a flurry of urban-rejuvenation projects. This was the era of bureaucratic statesmen: ambitious, liberal-minded, and slightly paternalistic public officials with large-scale development schemes, which were often diminished through budget cuts and political wrangling.

Today, the bureaucrat plays backup guitar to the philanthropist and the entrepreneur. Population growth and infrastructural decay are taking their toll, and yet it’s difficult to increase government revenue. As University of Toronto urban planning professor Matti Siemiatycki pointed out to me over the phone, the three leading candidates in the recent Toronto election promised much-needed infrastructure investments, but when it came to raising property taxes, all were reticent, if not openly hostile to the idea. And so the private sector must do some heavy lifting.

This can take the form of public-private partnerships, like the Loblaw-Ryerson-Ottawa triumvirate that saved Maple Leaf Gardens; or the alliance between government, the Daniels Corporation real-estate developers, and various sponsors that financed the TIFF Bell Lightbox, an expensive residential tower and a far less lucrative cinematheque. In many instances, a single ambitious entrepreneur takes the lead: the recent renovations to the Art Gallery of Ontario (also designed by Gehry) were initiated by a $50 million gift from Ken Thomson, who, at the time, was the country’s richest man. Toronto’s new Aga Khan Museum, a centre for Islamic art, opened this fall, thanks to the largess of the Aga Khan himself, the jet-setting spiritual leader of the international Ismaili community. Real-estate developer Michael Audain is building the nascent art gallery in Whistler, BC, set to open next year. And Winnipeg’s controversial Canadian Museum for Human Rights was enabled by the powerful Asper family, although private and public sponsors have stepped up to service the ever-growing tab.

The rise of the entrepreneur/civic statesman isn’t a bad thing. As Siemiatycki argues, public-private partnerships can be mutually beneficial, so long as safeguards are in place to protect public interests. Plus, it’s hard to imagine grandiose architectural endeavours, like Mirvish+Gehry Toronto, coming about any other way. If the mock-ups and the calibre of the designer are any indication, Mirvish+Gehry will be one of the city’s most unique buildings, providing a much-needed shakeup to the financial district’s blocky modernism. Its primary purpose is residential, not cultural, but it’s intended to serve as an aesthetic capstone to an already burgeoning entertainment district. It may bring a ton of revenue into the city to boot.

But will the project dramatically bolster Toronto’s international stature, or help the city to establish a regional identity? Can individual buildings really do that? As wonderful as Mirvish+Gehry is, I suspect it’s being oversold. Even the most marvelous condo complex is still, ultimately, a condo complex, and Toronto’s most pressing needs lie elsewhere. That’s not to say we shouldn’t build it. Just that we should recognize it for what it is—and for what it isn’t.

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You can measure an architect’s stature by the number of neologisms he or she inspires, and Gehry is clearly a giant: you might say that his signature “logotecture” (i.e. personal-brand-based architecture) has made him the world’s foremost “starchitect.” He is most famous for what critics call “the Bilbao effect,” a reference to his stunning 1997 Guggenheim Museum, located in the 350,000-person port city of Bilbao, Spain. The building is a masterpiece that rivals the Sagrada Família, and, having attracted a million visitors in its first year alone, it’s credited with singlehandedly reviving the local tourist economy.

As architect and critic Witold Rybczynski points out, Bilbao generated hype, and spurred attempts to replicate its success, even before it was completed. In 1996, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen commissioned Gehry to bring some magic to Seattle. Gehry delivered—the EMP Museum of music, science fiction and popular culture, opened at the turn of the century, is a psychedelic beauty—but the people didn’t come, at least not enough of them to keep the institution financially secure. In 2000, Denver hired Polish-American starchitect Daniel Libeskind, also responsible for the ROM additions in Toronto, to design an extension to the local gallery and hopefully transform the city into Bilbao North. Libeskind created a neo-gothic, spiky wonder—a fitting home for a first-rate art collection—but it has seen millions in budget cuts. The Bilbao effect has given rise to the Bilbao fallacy: the tendency, among politicians, boosters, and investors, to claim that a single expensive building will somehow alter a city’s identity, even though such transformations are more the exception than the rule.

You can measure an architect’s stature by the number of neologisms he or she inspires, and Gehry is a giant: you might say that his signature “logotecture” (i.e. personal-brand-based architecture) has made him the world’s foremost “starchitect.”

Toronto often gets caught up in this kind of thinking. Successive buildings, from the Toronto-Dominion Centre, to the SkyDome, to the ROM, have been billed as architectural milestones, works that will finally establish Toronto’s world-city status. Despite their success, they haven’t quite had the desired effect. Still, boosters keep promising that the next big project will be different. “We are a very good A-minus city,” Mirvish told Toronto Life this year. “We always aspire to not be noticed too much.” The implication is clear: if only Toronto could be noticed it would catapult to an A-plus grade.

I’m not convinced. Many of Gehry’s most beloved buildings are in places like New York, Los Angeles, Venice, and Paris, cities that already have an international reputation. Plus the qualities that elevate a city above its peers tend to be more diffuse, less iconic: think of Boston’s buried highways, London’s 500 km of under- and over-ground transit lines, or Sydney’s slew of repurposed heritage buildings.

Last February, I was in Panama City, an economic underachiever turned boomtown following the 1999 repatriation of the canal, previously owned by the United States. Since then, opulent postmodern buildings—many underwritten by private investors—have sprouted like trees of heaven. Many are striking, and some are undeniably beautiful. My girlfriend’s dad patiently drove me around while I snapped pictures of my favourites: Mallol and Mallol’s sweeping, curvilinear Yacht Club Tower, the yonic Trump Ocean Club International Hotel, and Pinzón Lozano’s corkscrew edifice, named the F&F Tower after the real estate company that built it. (I visited but didn’t try to photograph the nascent Gehry building, a biodiversity museum on the causeway connecting the city to a cluster of Pacific islands.)

None of my pictures turned out—you can’t capture downtown architecture on an iPhone—but that’s okay: I’d lost interest by the time I got home. When you spend time in a city beset by slums, poverty, poorly paved roads, and tenth-rate transit, but where the towers look like sculptural installations, you realize that individual buildings have limited utility. Panama City is leveraging some of its newfound capital toward social programs and infrastructure—there’s even a subway system in the works—but progress is slow, particularly compared to the hasty vertical developments downtown.

Toronto is in far better shape, although its most pressing issues are infrastructural, too. As critics love to point out, Toronto’s vibrant, livable downtown neighbourhoods are a big part of what makes it special. It needs investments that can safeguard these assets: transit lines that connect communities to one another, green-tech sites to power them, extensive medium-rise buildings that encourage density without blocking out the sun, and affordable housing initiatives (mixed-income buildings, more extensive laneway developments) to ensure that the creative communities of today don’t become the exclusive rich peoples’ playgrounds of tomorrow. The private sector would have a large role to play in creating such a city, but we can’t pursue the public good without raising some public revenue—a point that the Toronto Star’s Edward Keenan has strenuously argued in his critique of the mayor-elect’s transit plan.

In short, we can’t reasonably expect that the priorities of the ultra-rich will match those of the city at large, even if the rich themselves say otherwise. “I think the world outside of Toronto could see us in a new light,” Mirvish told the Globe and Mail last March. “That’s what Gehry does for us.” I suppose he has a limited point: if Gehry’s wonderful new Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris is any indication, the Toronto project will get some serious buzz. Nobody, however, would credit Gehry or his media profile with putting Paris on the map. The city of Haussmann, the Second Empire, and one of the world’s greatest metro systems had a whole lot going for it before Gehry came to town. A municipality isn’t a curio cabinet: you don’t make it great by filling it with precious oddities.

The exception, of course, is Bilbao. There’s little consensus as to why things went so well there, but I can see why tourists would flock to a top-tier art museum in a sunny, mountainous, seaside region in Basque Country. I’m not sure they’d be as enamoured of a condo complex in frigid Toronto, no matter how glamorous it is.

Toronto must seek uniqueness through other means. A recent Vogue article listed West Queen West as the second coolest neighbourhood on the planet. As a WQW resident, I’d say that’s an overstatement, but it demonstrates the extent to which Toronto’s residential, vernacular regions can achieve international recognition. The city should build on this strength, and Gehry, for all of his brilliance, won’t help us do that.

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Gehry is an international brand, the architectural equivalent of Swatch and Dior. You need money to buy in, but you don’t necessary need imagination. (You can leave that to him.) Writing in Vanity Fair, Paul Goldberger described Gehry’s Louis Vuitton building as “sensuous,” an apt description of the architect’s entire body of work, which is every bit as dense and textured as a Caspar Friedrich landscape.

Despite what people sometimes say, this is not a Toronto aesthetic. Gehry was born and raised in the city, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at his work, which draws on mysticism, nautical imagery, and a distinctly West Coast colour palette (including silver and pastel blue). In the interwar years, like many cultured southern Ontario families, the Gehrys visited Buffalo, where young Frank had a chance to see grandiose architecture—Charles B. Atwood and Frank Lloyd Wright—that he couldn’t find at home. At age 18, he decamped for Los Angeles, where he opened his own firm some 15 years later.

As his stature grew, Canada mostly ignored him. It wasn’t until four years after the Bilbao coup that Gehry, at this point in his 70s, received his first Canadian commission, to design the Le Clos Jordanne winery, near Lincoln, Ontario. (The project was later cancelled.) In Canada, experimental postmodern architecture was finally catching on, thanks to beloved works by Moshe Safdie, Douglas Cardinal, and Santiago Calatrava. Gehry was given an Order of Canada in 2003. Five years later, he opened his Art Gallery of Ontario, a lively redesign of an otherwise dour building—a beautiful project that compliments the Toronto street scene thanks to its uncharacteristic subtlety.

The AGO is an exception. Gehry’s aesthetic, with its frontierist recklessness and pop art flare, belongs not to Toronto but to the Greater Los Angeles Area—to the extent that it belongs anywhere at all. Its breeziness suggests endless space; its billows and bulges evoke wind over ocean water; and its shiny titanium perfectly compliments the California sky. But logotecture is, by definition, distinct. A Gehry mostly looks like a Gehry. That’s the point.

The Gehry brand works because it’s at once reductive and versatile. His signature insight—that you can treat glass and titanium like putty—enables endless creative possibilities, since he molds his materials into hundreds of marvelous shapes. Every Gehry building is unique, but the idea of Gehry—the notion that a city must have one, along with, say, a Trump tower and a W Hotel—is less so. To commission a Gehry is to demand that your city be measured against international standards. It’s not an investment in regional culture.

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To embrace the Toronto aesthetic, you first have to define it. Which isn’t easy, considering the messiness of the streetscape, but Rodolphe el-Khoury, former director of the University of Toronto urban design program and current architecture dean at the University of Miami, insists that, contrary to accepted wisdom, the city does have a regional style. If you’re skeptical, do a Google-image search of Toronto architectural firms—Baird Sampson Neuert, Shim-Sutcliffe, Diamond Schmitt, and KPMB—and you’ll see a pattern emerging.

“The architecture has this very modern, cosmopolitan character,” says el-Khoury over the phone from Miami, “but it also echoes some of the features of the landscape.” This mash-up of sophistication and folksiness originated from a few Toronto houses (Diamond Schmitt in particular) working within the tradition of Alvar Aalto, the Finnish architect, designer, and sculptor who reconciled Nordic provincialism with European élan.

“In Toronto, you have these abstract prismatic shapes and flat roofs that are characteristic of modern architecture,” says el-Khoury, “ but also you get the fieldstone, the millwork, and other materials that you would associate with a local, more regional tradition.” The effect is distinctly homey. “Toronto architecture has a domestic character, which is then translated into an institutional form. It’s like thinking of institutions as large homes.”

Every Gehry building is unique, but the idea of Gehry—the notion that a city must have one, along with, say, a Trump tower and a W Hotel—is less so. To commission a Gehry is to demand that your city be measured against international standards. It’s not an investment in regional culture.

El-Khoury doesn’t base his observations on iconic buildings, since they don’t exhibit local aesthetics in their purist form—regional architecture can be subtle, and it takes a keen eye to notice it in a city as jumbled as Toronto. He considers the many rustic-yet-elegant homes designed by Shim-Sutcliffe; the headquarters of the management consulting firm McKinsey and Company (designed by Hariri Pontarini), with its cozy fireplaces, rough stone walls, and teak and mahogany window frames; or the Jackson Triggs Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, KPMB’s expansive modernist barn with fieldstone walls and plenty of natural light.

I mention one of my favourite Toronto buildings, Diamond Schmitt’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, which has been praised and criticized in equal measure since opening in 2006. For its detractors, it’s a pared-down alternative to the original opera house plan, a sumptuous palace designed by Moshe Safdie and adorned with glass pyramids overtop silver domes. (The project was cancelled during the ’90s recession.) The Four Seasons has none of Safdie’s whimsy, nor does it have the grandeur of a European concert hall; if Wagner were alive, he’d probably have it firebombed. Instead, the site derives its charm from elegant minimalism, an awareness of place, and other features, like natural acoustics and consistent sight lines, that you’re more likely to experience than notice.

It also has the domestic, woodsy character that el-Khoury talks about. The unframed proscenium arch is utilitarian and earnest; the textured plaster walls add a rough-hewn touch; the wood paneling references rural Anglo-Saxon theatre traditions; and the transparent glass façade of the five-floor lobby undermines insider-versus-outsider elitism. That’s not to say that the design lacks sophistication—it has been praised by opera critics as one of the world’s best performance spaces, and the horseshoe-shaped auditorium is a Western European hallmark. But it offers an alternative to the staid velvet-and-marble ambience of the archetypal Viennese opera theatre.

The Four Seasons Centre feels, in short, like 21st-century Toronto. While it’s not quite iconic or consistently beautiful (its north-, south-, and east-facing exterior walls aren’t much to look at), it offers a starting point from where future, more ambitious investments in regional architecture might begin. Its aesthetic is too subtle to hijack international attention the way celebrities like Gehry do. But since when is subtlety a bad thing? And if Toronto wants to distinguish itself, shouldn’t it be setting precedents instead of following them?

To be fair, Gehry does try to incorporate parochial elements into his works, but these gestures often feel tokenistic. The multicolour canopy overtop the Panama City biomuseum is apparently inspired by the tin roofs of a Central American village, and his beloved Dancing House draws on the art nouveau style of the surrounding Prague streetscape. You’d be unlikely to notice these regional inflections, however, if you weren’t looking for them. Gehry’s distinctiveness and grandiosity are at odds with local colour, and his patrons aren’t paying him to blend in.

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I’m not at all opposed to the Mirvish+Gehry project, and neither is el-Khoury. (“Toronto already has so many different things,” he says, “and I don’t object to diversity in the city.”) Private-sector dollars are offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis: if the city had turned Mirvish down, it’s not like he’d then reinvest the money in low-income housing or transit infrastructure. (And, in fairness, we wouldn’t expect him to.) Plus, it would be fun to have a small piece of Gehry Nation in the middle of my city. Toronto has many condo towers that stand out for their ugliness. As el-Khoury points out, nobody has yet been able to marry Toronto’s folksy vernacular to the demands of high-rise design. At least the Gehry tower will be conspicuous in a good way.

Still, it is what it is: a unique project executed according to an established business formula; a one-shot accessory to the skyline, but not a genuine attempt at local self-expression. It’s unlikely to elevate Toronto above the many other cities that also have a Gehry building and a centre for mid-century abstract art. So, I’ll reserve my highest enthusiasm for other projects. I’d love to see the Toronto style being leveraged toward a large (like 10,000 square meter) gallery solely for contemporary art, something the city still doesn’t have; or a mixed-use recreational and green-energy structure, a Canadian riff on the Amager Bakke power plant in Copenhagen. I’d settle, though, for some genuine progress on transit.

Going forward, Toronto can expect that the rich will continue to funnel money into legacy projects and celebrity commissions. Maybe, with their help, we’ll rebuke London with our own Renzo Piano tower, or we’ll get back at Berlin and Denver with a better Libeskind than the ones they (and we) currently have. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a David Adjaye complex, and if we’re less risk averse than Mirvish thinks we are, we’ll roll the dice on Zaha Hadid or Jean Nouvel. The city will develop, if not in livability or regional distinctiveness, then at least in ostentation, grandeur, and height. Then, when the frenzy is over, and we’ve filled our urban curio cabinet with monuments to wealth and status anxiety, maybe we’ll build something for ourselves.

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