Saturday, December 6, 2008



It was a long time AGO that I started haunting this institution, 1973 to be exact. There have been a lot of changes since, and some things have respectfully remained the same. With the latest incarnation at the hands of Frank Gehry AGO has finally fallen from the sky with grace.
Upon my second visit since the new renovation I took the time to sketch a little doodle of the exterior of the front elevation. Took it home and compared it to Gehry's doodle on the front of the T-shirt I purchased at the gallery gift shop a couple of years ago, and it all made sense.
What strikes me most about the new facade besides the obvious canoe shape of it all, is the forever disappearing vanishing point as I walked along its' length from across the street. Like great art it leads us into timelessness.
Two other elements of the front elevation that also impress me are, for one it is not what it was. The last waste of money and expectation performed on its' skeleton took AGO from being an establishment to house a growing collection of Art to shape our collective consciousness, to being a suburban shopping mall with a self admiring tower to the architect, to remain nameless so that abomination can slip from my memory.
Elements of a further past though still remain and warm my little heart with nostalgia. Both the east and west elevations have kept the modernist renovation done to house the works of Henry Moore, The Abex Artist, Painters 11, The Automatistes, et al et al.
Still I remain undecided about the lobby reception area. The winding walkway, I notice that most people walk around it . There is something about it that is not quite human in it's scale or it's meandering where are we goingness. Although like most of everything else that is new, the use of Douglas Fir I find very endearing in a warm and fuzzy I am Canadian sort of way.
As I travelled through the many rooms and corridors I did find one thing somewhat frustrating, albeit temporary is the fact that there is still work going on. The new winding interior staircase was not open yet, which wasn't so bad. I can wait. There was a lot of work still going on up on the roof, as a result all the skylights were closed. All I have been hearing about is the wonderful rain of natural light that washes the collection. One room in particular I found suffered. Like many of the rooms on the upper contemporary floors it was small providing an intimate experience with a given Artist's work. In this case it was the work of Betty Goodwin. Her work is exquisite, and as an Artist I found it frustrating that I could not enter into a dialogue with the room.
Although there were other areas where both sun and panorama were breath taking. On the rear of the building's 4th floor the windows are dressed with rather wide blinds made from Douglas Fir plywood laminated together that give them a thickness emphasizing the scale of the materials' origin. Light filters through to different effect on given hours of the day and season. I have always found natural light a double edged sword, as the damn earth keeps rotating making sunlight very unreliable on a good day. Case in point, at 90 degrees from the window there are 2 large pieces under glass, the sunlight causes an acute slice across them making them hard to view.
Another of Frank's wonderful insights is how he brings the urban landscape into the the architectural dialogue. On the rear of the building there is a winding staircase that from the outside seems somehow glued onto the facade, and is affectionately called the barnacle. From its' interior it is a completely different story. Complete integration with the city. There are so many views it's hard to begin describing them. For me, though the view towards OCAD stops me dead in my tracks. I have never had anything but bothersome thoughts about the exterior elevations of that chunk of roman nougat. Although my experience of it has always been from street level. Now I am at eye level and I see a Mondrian composition with the towers of downtown as it's frame. Be still my beating heart.
I could go on and on about the collection but I will save that for another day. One other sentimental element that has remained virtually untouched, (Thank you Frank), has been the Henry Moore gallery. I cannot tell you how many hours in the last 30+ years I have sat pondering those mammoth bones in context of my own minute frailty.
One last new element I would like to approach in total awe is the Galleria Italia. I will get to its' sensual virtues, but first I have to say that I am moved by its' tribute to the Italian population, in particular the building families, that have built this city since WW2, bravissimo. Now onto the absolute beauty of this promenade. For one it's supposed to be a corridor to move people from one end of the gallery to the other across the front elevation of the building. I for one upon entering it didn't want to go anywhere. I was awestruck.
From an Architectural & Engineering point of view it is brilliant. One gets the feeling of being in the middle of an incomplete canoe with all its ribs yet to be clad, or of being Jonah in the belly of the whale. And again Douglas Fir feature both as architecture and the engineering of the beast. The ribs are actually titanic sized laminated wood ribs arched skyward, with horizontally connected wood tendons. I remember the opening of the National Gallery in Ottawa years ago. There is a similar promenade but of glass and concrete, and even then as I was walking through it, and I did so in a hurry as I was offended by how the National Gallery of this country could give in to the simple use of concrete and not give it the warmth of wood it so deserved. The thought of gigantic columns of Douglas Fir crossed my mind. Shame on them.
Again Frank integrates the city into the gallery, but instead of sweeping panoramas it's like looking out from inside a well faceted diamond, giving snap shots or vignettes of the neighbourhood, Being low to the street also gives the view a human scale. Stretched across the length of its' floor is a dissected log of Douglas Fir with a stream of sap running down it's middle hollow. I swear I didn't see the do not touch sign, so now the sap has my finger print indelibly pressed into its' goo.
Bravo, and thank you Frank for a marvellous tribute the AGO collection.


Catherine said...

Thank you for this!
Can't wait to go now... even tho the $18 entrance fee is scary!

Guitana said...

How many times have you been to the "new" AGO, how could you possibly have all this wonderful knowledge in just a couple of visits? I have yet to make the trek to the big smoke, but hopefully soon, i also want to take in the Day of the Dead work at the Gardiner, seems like there is never enough time, i look forward to more artful observations from you, thanks