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Art Gallery of Ontario reopens with Gehry's stamp

Architect Frank Gehry hopes people can find their way around the Art Gallery of Ontario when it opens Friday to the public after a $276-million renovation.

Architect Frank Gehry hopes people can find their way around the Art Gallery of Ontario when it opens Friday to the public after a $276-million renovation.

The celebrity Canadian architect, who redesigned the Toronto gallery, was juggling numerous demands in the design process, including the need to stay on budget and showcase a collection of 2,000 works from principal donor Ken Thomson, and the requirements of the AGO's board and curators.

But he has definite ideas himself about what a public building should do, as he explained during a press conference Thursday.

"A public building is something that invites people in, is user friendly, functions as intended and is responsive to the community around it," Gehry said, addressing a crowd of more than 300 who came to see the result of his design process.

One of his priorities was to redesign the confusing AGO entranceway that left most gallery-goers asking for directions the minute they stepped inside. In the redesigned AGO, they enter through the airy Walker Court and immediately see the striking spiral staircase that leads to floors above.

"It was in the DNA of this building to have an entrance through the Walker Court," Gehry said. "I hope it leads to clarity for visitors as they walk around the building."

Visitors used to come in through the Walker Court, a square room with an upper gallery and large arches that let people see through to other exhibit rooms, before a previous redesign. Gehry remembers those years, because he grew up just blocks away.

He described working on a building that he has known since he was a child as an "emotional experience."

And AGO director and chief executive Matthew Teitelbaum pointed out that he himself was familiar with the gallery from childhood, as was Thomson, whose donation of $100 million helped kickstart the renovation campaign.

Among them they agreed that the Walker Court, the old European galleries with their works by Dutch and Renaissance masters and the Moore Court, home of the Henry Moore sculptures, would remain unchanged.

But the exhibit space had to be more than doubled so the AGO could display more of its collection of Canadian and international art and the eclectic collection bequeathed by Thomson, who died in June 2006.

"I honestly did not know the length and breadth and power of Canadian art," says Gehry, whose international practice is based in Los Angeles.

 "I know for me, having grown up here, it's a great pride to look at that (art) and realize how powerful it is, how important it is and what a thing to have for Canada in the future."

An art lover himself, he was moved by Thomson's admiration for art of all kinds.

"Thomson could describe every object as if he was holding it in his hand," Gehry said.

Drawn into art

Among the new galleries are ones devoted to Thomson's collection of work by Canadian artists such as Paul Kane, Tom Thomson and Cornelius Krieghoff, another to his medieval and Renaissance religious objects and yet another to his collection of ship models.

Gehry envisages a contemporary Canadian youngster lured to the AGO by the prospect of ship models, being drawn into the world of art by something that catches his or her eye in the next gallery.

Gehry says he was worried about overshadowing Grange Park, the park to the south of the AGO that is home to a Georgian Manor that is part of AGO property. Then fellow architect Will Alsop built the funky Ontario College of Art overhanging the park and, when Torontonians seemed to like it, Gehry felt free to build a tower next to the park.

Another of his priorities was to contribute to Dundas Street, along the north side of the building. His response was a glass gallery stretching the length of the building — a full city block — that looks out onto the old Victorian-era homes and allows light to stream into the exhibit areas.

"I was worried about the Dundas Street façade. I was scared it would be too pushy," he said. "When I look at it now, it is quiet enough and I think it does something for Dundas Street."

On the street level are restaurants and coffee shops opening onto the street, as well as the gallery entrance.

There are skylights in several galleries, bringing more natural light into the AGO. Gehry has also built with wood, to add warmth and colour.

"There has been this overwhelming rush to build white boxes that have no character to show art," he says, adding that "no character ends up being the character."

The design process is "a people thing," he says, stressing that the building people will see starting Friday is the result of input from dozens of contributors.

'It was very exciting to come home'

The architect who built the Guggenheim Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles rejects criticisms that the more modest design of the AGO makes it less than a real Frank Gehry building.

"It was very exciting to come home and have an opportunity to contribute," he said.

The AGO announced Thursday that it has surpassed its full $276-million campaign goal. As a result, the building project is fully funded as are endowments for operations and new acquisitions.

The AGO opens to the public at 4 p.m. ET Friday with free admission until midnight and on Saturday 10 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.