The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

Frank Gehry returns to Canada to put his mark on the Toronto skyline

After creating works of art around the world, Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry is returning home to do the same once again in Canada.

World-renowned architect announces he's designing a pair of condo towers

Frank Gehry, left, is a world-renowned architect and designer. Right, concept art of the Forma condominium buildings, designed by Gehry, which are planned to be built in downtown Toronto. (Great Gulf Group, Dream, Westdale Properties)
Frank Gehry is making a splashy return to the city where he was born, 93 years ago. His new condo tower project is set to make an indelible mark on Toronto's skyline. The pair of residential buildings is a reflection of his love for the city and an expression of Canadian identity because, as Gehry tells Piya Chattopadhyay... art, community value, and the greater global picture are inexplicably intertwined in building design as a conversation forever in progress.

After creating works of art around the world, Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry is returning home to do the same once again in Canada. 

Gehry has designed buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. And now he's adding to the Toronto skyline with a pair of residential towers. 

It's not the first time Gehry has designed a building in his home city. He also worked on the redesign of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which was completed in 2008.

The new project, Forma, is is planned to be mainly residential, housing more than 2,000 condominium units near the city's entertainment and financial districts. The first tower is scheduled to be completed in 2028, while the second building doesn't yet have a completion date. 

Gehry spoke to The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay about the new design and his return to Canada. Here's part of that conversation. 

Your new project is being referred to as your big return back to Canadian soil, and I'm wondering what that means to you to be making such a big impact on your hometown and its iconic skyline?

Oh, well, I never expected it. It was a chance involvement with me and David Mirvish. Over the years, we've stayed in touch. I often went to his gallery. I knew a lot of his artists. I know a lot of the artists that he showed. So it seemed OK when he called and asked me to get involved with a project of this scale in Toronto. 

So we welcomed the opportunity and spent quite a bit of time with him designing it and meeting with city officials over time and developing an idea for a collaborative effort with the city officials, to make something special out of two towers. 

We thought that could be an ensemble. And I make reference to the Rockefeller Centre, which — as an ensemble — still has a powerful image in New York City. So I was thinking maybe we could do something that takes that same idea and create something special for Toronto. 

Gehry outside the Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

You say you want this project to capture the essence of Toronto and Canadian identity and then translate those thoughts into this project. So talk to me more about that, about how you sort of approached it through that lens? 

That Canadian identity that I'm talking about is the history of the buildings that I grew up with. So they're fixed in my head because I haven't lived there in the new world. So when I think of Toronto, I think of Osgoode Hall and the [provincial] parliament buildings and University Avenue and the train station and the Royal York Hotel. 

I'm not trying to say we should go backwards. I just say there's a kind of a respect that I wanted to have for that heritage without copying it. So can you do that? Well, we kind of did it in New York, and successfully. And so I'm sort of thinking maybe we can do it here. 

We've got two buildings — two towers. It's nice that they talk to each other and they create an ensemble. And it does kind of do, potentially, what the Rockefeller Centre does. It holds its own in the milieu of a bunch of every kind of building possible that's being built in Toronto with no relationship to each other. 

I'm interested in hearing from you about your architecture as sort of a canon. When you look at your buildings, what do you think? 

Well, I don't think of it as an ego trip. It's not about that. One of my professors at [University of Southern California] took me aside once, just privately, and he said, "Frank, you're going to do good, but I want you to promise me, no matter what you do, you're going to deliver. If you've got a budget … you've got to deliver." 

So that mantra has been in my life. But it is because I took that seriously. And you can do it. It's not like everything has to go over budget. Bilbao was $100 million budget [US]  I did it for $97 million. Walt Disney Concert Hall was $207 million budget, [I did it for] $207 million.

Gehry poses as he attends a press visit at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Boulogne, western in Paris on Oct. 17, 2014. (REUTERS/Benoit Tessier )

It brings me back to Forma. In 2014, the Toronto Star wrote an article that city officials had reacted with fear and loathing when your initial proposal was brought forward, that the city planner at the time talked about the project being too dense, too tall.

You ended up addressing all those concerns. But what does that initial reaction say to you [about] maybe our cultural way of thinking when it comes to bold buildings?

Well, people are scared of what they don't understand. I think people are afraid. It's taken a long time for clients to understand that I do deliver, and they come after me because of that. But I bring value and deliver. 

So that's what we're supposed to do. That's my job. So Canada is special to me.

How would you describe the esthetic in our country as it relates to our architecture? 

Well, if you look at all the towers built in Toronto, it's like everything else in the world. So I don't think they're any different right now. 

I tried to do work with the developer in Vancouver. [They had] no respect for architecture, [it was] just a total money deal. So I couldn't do it. I think that's the disease, is that it is about money. Money rules the world. 

So to find out you can make a beautiful building for the same money, and make more money because it's a beautiful building, they're kind of slow to get a hold of. They're starting to get it. But that's worldwide. 

Gehry redesigned the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

This is true of many big cities, Toronto included, that there are concerns by many about condo developments that neighbourhoods are increasingly being stripped of their identities. What do you make of that skepticism around condos? 

Well, I think somebody has to have a bigger picture. And apparently there isn't that interest in the political arena and people that are running [cities], they have to make it something they that they prioritize. 

So how do you convince people that design and architecture helps foster community?

It's profitable. The developers I work with love what I do because it's profitable. If they understand that if you make a beautiful piece of sculpture, somebody buys it. If it looks like same old, like you get the same old. 

I think we're all subject to that kind of idiocy. Single handed, nobody is going to be able to do it. We have to come together and talk about it. I mean, just giving little awards here and there is not enough. 

Where do you keep finding the inspiration, the energy, the demands that all of this takes?

With the people I work with. There's a great art world out there that's very inspirational. There's a great music world that's very inspirational. 

There's a lot of inspiration for me from my colleagues in the art world from like the artists past and present from musicians. There's a lot of inspiration. 


Interview produced by Andrea Hoang. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him on Twitter @phildrost or by email at philip.drost@cbc.ca.

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