The daring and beautiful belongs in God's church

  • January 25, 2010
{mosimage}For centuries of Western history, Christian churches were the outstanding expressions of the architect’s art and craft. There are many reasons why this is no longer the case. Among them is the widespread decline of church-going and revenues, and the opinion that churches should occupy a more low-profile place in the urban fabric, and, not least important, an attitude of alienation (if not hostility) on the part of the church-going public toward the accomplishments of modern architecture.

But as long as new churches continue to be built, the opportunity of making them excellent and beautiful remains open. Catholics surely should not settle for second-rate church buildings in the Toronto archdiocese.

Numerous new public structures in Toronto — the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the Royal Conservatory of Music, the renovated Art Gallery of Ontario, among others — are highly creative, suggestive models of architecture that, like a good church, involve and sustain people in common activities.

These buildings have much to teach church designers about space and materials, and we can hope that the next generation of churches in Toronto and its region embodies the lessons of the superior architecture we have in our own neighbourhood.

All of us, layfolk and architects alike, have a lot to learn from Frank Gehry’s overhaul of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The designer is surely most famous for his exuberant flair. But the $276-million transfiguration of the AGO shows him stepping back from his characteristic grand-manner gesticulation and making an acutely well-tuned contribution to the city where he was born and spent the formative years of his youth. Here, he is engaged less with flamboyant icon-making than with in-fill, repair and renovation, remoulding a mid-sized regional museum into an enlarged vessel for Canadian and international art.

The AGO is evidence of Gehry’s current explorations involving large ranges of glass and, especially, load-bearing armatures of wood: the museum’s vast new north façade of glass, framed by curving struts of Douglas fir, for instance.

This north face is also an illustration of the overall generosity of the scheme in its relationship with the city. The bulging superstructure of glass, concrete and great Douglas fir ribs, rising above a long street-side porch, sweeps 180 metres along the sidewalk in a wide arc and rises 20 metres, terminating at either end with large flaring sails of glass. The dramatic facade establishes an interesting dialogue with Dundas Street: glass counterpointing the Victorian brick houses across the roadway, the mighty stillness of Gehry’s form contrasting with the traffic and passing streetcars.

Among the best of Gehry’s moves is his transposition of the main entrance to the building back from the east end to the centre, to a place opening directly past the wicket on to the Walker Court. One of Toronto’s best-known interior spaces, this large marble-floored room framed by Roman arches was originally intended, and has long served, as the heart of the AGO. The new placement of the entrance restores the room’s pride of place, while Gehry’s alterations to the court have drastically transformed its tone and visual sense. Gone, for example, is its characteristic of urban sanctuary: The opaque roof has been replaced by glass, which turns the formerly solemn room into an open piazza, allowing daylight — that most valuable commodity in a climate with long, dark winters — into the museum’s centre for the first time.

If the north façade sets up a conversation with the street, the rear elevation connects the museum to the city. Instead of turning its back on the Grange house and park, the AGO now offers a high overlook of both, in the form of a twisting exterior staircase that joins the two top floors. Moving with this same impulse to open the gallery to the city beyond, Gehry has inserted great windows in the rear wall, fitted with wood louvres that afford wide views of busy, nearby Queen Street and the downtown towers beyond. With its windows open to the city, the back of the building encourages viewers to recall contemporary art’s vital, ongoing relationship with contemporary culture, its social problematics, conflicts and opportunities.

Gehry’s AGO, and other new buildings in Toronto, are challenges for church architects and for us to do better than we’ve done, to put up church buildings that are both daring and beautiful, to witness more publicly in the work of our hands to the Lord of all creative imagination and accomplishment.

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