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David Mirvish and Frank Gehry both made a memorably strong case during Monday’s media conference to unveil their controversial megaproject, which is intended to transform more than a block of King St. W. in Toronto’s Entertainment District into a brave new cultural mecca.
The project, it was clear, is extremely personal for both of them, not just another business deal. And its emotional resonance came through partly because the event was held at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which reopened four years earlier after being transformed by Gehry.
“The folklore of my Canadian heritage has been well documented,” quipped Gehry, 83. “We all have an image of a Toronto that doesn’t exist anymore. All that is in my DNA and I hope it will come out in this project.”
Indeed, though the streets of this city were formative in the boyhood of Frank Goldberg (as he was before changing his surname), the AGO makeover is the first and only Gehry building in Toronto. His new Mirvish project would be his first from the ground up in Canada.
Take the images of his six-storey podium, sweeping across one entire block on the north side of King St. east of John and continuing across half of the next block. The model has what looks like crumpled paper indicating how the tall towers of the project will be linked to one another at the base.
“Trust me, that’s not garbage,” says Gehry.
The podium, the first six floors of the complex, will have room for two major museums (one for David and Audrey Mirvish’s own sensational collection of abstract art going back to the breakthroughs of the 1960s, and another for OCAD University’s collection). But that’s not all. There will be terraces, gardens, classy retail shops and restaurants.
“With the towers,” Gehry explained, “we are trying to differentiate them so they relate to each other.”
One will be glass and another terra cotta (to suggest material used all over Toronto in former times). And they do a bit of a dance with one another, slightly shimmering like the “Dancing House” building in Prague that Gehry co-designed.
Mirvish, speaking very personally, explained why this project is close to his heart.
Then came the moment, three decades ago, when he told his father (who had bought the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1962 and saved it from being turned into a parking lot): “Dad, I think I can do a better job than you of running the theatre.”
Ironically, the son of the man who saved a theatre from being demolished is now being attacked by people outraged that he is proposing to demolish another: the Princess of Wales, which David Mirvish himself created 19 years ago.
“I’m involved in theatre and art and I believe that architecture tells us who we are,” he said Monday,
And since Toronto’s big downtown theatres have many dark weeks, at the moment it is better to let one theatre close to make way for two great museums. But Mirvish is by no means retreating from theatre. He owns three other theatres. And if in five or 10 years, there is a need for a fourth, I have no doubt he will build it.
Probably no one will feel more pain over the demise of the Princess of Wales than Mirvish, who put his own money and ego into it. But he is not doing this as a cynical cash grab. He is prepared to sacrifice a theatre because he thinks the new complex will enhance the culture of his city and his neighbourhood, and allow him to share his glorious art collection with the Toronto public.
“We know we can deliver an architectural project that is different and speaks to Toronto’s cultural history,” promises Gehry. “David’s commitment to art and architecture is why I’m here.”