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Built to inspire: creative designs and innovative structures are converting Canada's largest city into a true mosaic of architecture and culture.


There's nothing in the least bit harmonious about Daniel Libeskind's new addition to the block-long stone and brick Royal Ontario Museum. Shards of aluminum and ribbons of glass jut out onto the sidewalk with knife-like precision, without care or need for right angles, just piercing zigzags in the air created by heavy materials. Approach the building from a distance and it feels like the original 1914 structure has been attacked by some killer prism in a B movie. Yet, judging from the mass of people gathered around the building snapping photographs like the paparazzi, the result is a success. Libeskind's bravura has taken the wrecking ball to the staid and the old and led the city of Toronto into a 21st-century architectural renaissance.

Writer Wyndham Lewis once referred to Toronto as a "sanctimonious icebox," but a lot has changed in the past three years to alter that image and draw attention to Toronto's current moniker, "Design City." Libeskind's soaring glass exterior, called the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal building, made its debut in 2007. Diamond & Schmitt's Four Seasons Centre, home to the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada, opened to the public a year prior. Will Alsop's Tabletop building, which houses the Ontario College of Art and Design, looks like it's standing on multicolored crayon legs created by Crayola. Nearby is the Art Gallery of Ontario, which reopened in November with a new building designed by Frank Gehry.

To say that Toronto architecture lacked inspiration before the arrival of the latest starchitects would be misleading. Walk up from the underground city into the Alien Lambert Galleria and you'll find Santiago Calatrava's exquisite atrium created in 1992. Running a city block between two office towers, the white-painted steel and glass arch is an oasis of light and warmth in the frigid Canadian winter. Calatrava's tall arches pay homage to the Gothic influence on the city. Libeskind pushes the envelope further, but his design could just have easily been plopped down in Tokyo as Toronto, with little or no reflection on the city's past.

Inside Libeskind's design at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), white paint subdues the ribs of steel and light pours in from strips of glass. A large prehistoric turtle skeleton hangs from one of the asymmetrical walls, signifying that the building is a natural history museum that specializes in dinosaurs, gems, and Egyptology. Libeskind's creation consists of a series of five interlocking crystals. Atop crystal number 5 is the restaurant, c5, which rewards diners with exquisite vistas of the city, including Toronto's signature landmark, the CN Tower. Over lunch, Dave Hollands, director of design at the ROM, tells me that the addition, costing $300 million Canadian and five years to complete, was necessary to house more of their extensive collection.


"We wanted to make a civic statement that went beyond our boundaries," says Hollands, and for that there is no denying.

Functionality is not one of Libeskind's trademarks. Indeed, his jarring, some would say, angry exteriors often serve as a metaphor of the anguish caused by mankind, the Jewish Museum in Berlin and his forthcoming memorial to the victims of 9/11 being two prime examples. Yet, there's a certain whimsy inside the ROM that befits the museum's core population, children. Look down a steel grid from the fifth floor and you can see all the way to the basement. A brick corner of the old building pokes through the walls of the new design, and there's even a "bridge to nowhere" on the third floor that simply ends at a diagonal wall to enhance the funhouse flavor. This wouldn't have lent itself well to a more traditional art museum, where the Cubism in Picasso's work is confusing enough without the help of a tilting perspective. As home to the skeleton of a large Barosaurus, with its long tail flowing to the second floor ceiling in an are, it works brilliantly.


Some would call Toronto-based architect Jack Diamond the anti-Libeskind. The glass face of his Four Seasons Centre overlooking University Avenue is a gesture that welcomes the public into the opera house in a style quite different from the more haughty and aloof exteriors of centuries past. But Diamond's exteriors will never cause traffic to slow down or drivers to spew expletives of joy or disgust as they do with Libeskind's work. His approach is far more subtle and elegant. Enter the city streets into the quietude of the Four Seasons Centre and you'll see the talented work of a pragmatist who first and foremost ensures that the acoustics are some of the finest in the world.

"Think of this building as an egg in a nest," says architect Michael Tracy, who worked as project manager on the construction. "The auditorium sits on 400 rubber pads, surrounded by a foot of concrete to protect the interior from noise," he notes.



Add three layers of glass around the periphery of the five-story rectangular structure and you feel engulfed in a glass bubble, seeing but not hearing the outside world. Inside the auditorium, modeled on the traditional European horseshoe shape, the acoustics are remarkable. You can hear a stage hand talking behind the stage curtain from all the way up in the top tier. Each of the 2,000 seats feels intimate, as if you're hovering over the performance, and the mix of maple wood and Canadian stone exudes warmth.

Diamond's craftsmanship extends outside the auditorium to a self-supporting glass staircase, lit up at night, which leads to a small amphitheater. At lunch time, the city is invited inside the Four Seasons Centre to listen to free world music performances and readings on this stage. Strolling around the auditorium to visit the block-long Henry Jackman Lounge and the ballet rehearsal rooms, sunlight streams in from the oversized windows, making the space feel airy, light, and communal. The use of glass and its two-sided transparency to and from the surrounding streets proclaims that opera is for all. It is a message that has obviously worked. Three-quarters of those who attend the performances are annual subscribers, including many in the younger demographic.

A commitment to community is inherent in the offerings of architect Eb Zeidler and his two daughters, Margie and Christina Zeidler. Best known for the elder Zeidler's work on Ontario Place in the early 70s, the family has turned lately to restoration projects. Following the cue of Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities and her mission to reuse direlict buildings to energize neighborhoods, Margie found a circa-1899 warehouse in the garment district and converted it into 401 Richmond, a vibrant community of artists, architects, designers, and galleries. Long hallways, glass walkways, and ample corridor space allow the tenants of the building to interact and hopefully to inspire each other's work.


The Zeidlers' next project was to take the oldest continuously operating hotel in town--still standing in a yet-to-be-gentrified section of the West Queen West community--and give it a much needed facelift. Opened in 1889, the Richardsonian Romanesque Gladstone Hotel once provided lodging for the people arriving at the former railroad station across the street. It then fell on hard times for a number of years before the Zeidlers purchased the building in 2002. This time Christina, a graduate of Ontario College of Art and Design, took the lead, ensuring that the only remaining hand-operated elevator in the city would continue to run, and turning each of the hotel's 37 rooms into a distinct work of art.

"There are so many talented people in this city. We wanted to create a balance between art and hospitality," says Christina.

So in the "Parlor of Twilight," Room 405, you'll find tin ceilings, neon light, and a blue suede headboard that gives the room a seductive 1940s flavor, much like the setting of a film noir flick. Room 310, a corner suite designed by another sister, Kate, takes a more classic approach with Persian rugs, warm woods, and stellar views of the city. Christina designed Room 415, surrounded by photographs of fall foliage in Toronto's Hyde Park. You can lie down on the bed and feel nature's embrace.

Unlike the Zeidlers, Frank Gehry didn't have to completely gut the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to make the building usable again. In fact, many locals think he had the far more challenging task of melding the many additions to the AGO over the years. The art museum started with the Grange, a Georgian Manor built in 1817 and bequeathed in the early 1900s. There were six more additions over the course of a century, including the stone Beaux-Arts structure built around the Grange in 1918, another wing in the 1920s, and a two-story brick addition in the 1990s that succeeded in creating a maze-like navigation system through the museum, confusing and frustrating most visitors.

Enter Gehry, whose grandmother lived in the same neighborhood as the AGO. Best known for his amorphous sensual structures of twisted stainless steel displayed at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Gehry certainly had the freedom to wrap the AGO in one big shiny bow if he wanted, especially in the wake of Libeskind's design at the ROM. Yet, at the mature age of 80, and perhaps feeling nostalgic for his youth, he displayed an unusual degree of restraint.


A wave of glass flows along the length of the building on Dundas Street, reflecting and not overwhelming the Victorian buildings across the street. Inside, accessibility is achieved at the entrance with a wooden ramp that leads to a spiral staircase, curving from the ground floor into the atrium of Walker Court. Another equally thrilling stairwell extends out of the blue titanium back wall some 38 feet away from the building and rewards guests with tantalizing vistas south over Grange Park and to the adjacent Tabletop building. The highlight, however, has to be the Galleria Italia on the second floor, a large lounge nestled inside that wave of glass along Dundas Street. Ribs of soft Douglas fir curve upward, as if you've just entered the inverted hull of a ship.


It is through wood and glass, and not through the sheen of aluminum or steel, that Gehry plays with the vitality of the surrounding neighborhood and, unlike the Libeskind add-on at the ROM, this work adds another layer of congruity. It is distinctly Toronto, evoking the ships that ride the mighty waves on the waters of Lake Ontario. Thinking outside of the "icebox," he has created a structure that is neither alien nor drab, a new AGO that the people of Toronto should be proud to call their own.

An author; contributor, and columnist for various publications, Stephen Jermanok currently is editor of the annual arts and travel issues at Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.
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Title Annotation:TORONTO
Author:Jermanok, Stephen
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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