The Un­showy Show­case

A for­mer fac­tory turned in­ten­tion­ally raw gallery, Toronto’s new Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art was crafted for the city it serves, not In­sta­gram

Azure - - CONTENTS - By Si­mon Lewsen

Housed in a for­mer fac­tory, MOCA Toronto was crafted for its city, not for so­cial me­dia

When Peter Clewes, prin­ci­pal of the Toronto firm ar­chi­tect­sal­liance, was hired to turn an aban­doned fac­tory into an art gallery, he com­mit­ted to us­ing the light­est touch pos­si­ble. Upon vis­it­ing the newly opened site, called the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Toronto, one might strug­gle to spot ev­i­dence of his and his firm’s work. “If you’re not even aware of what we did,” says Clewes, “that’s good news.” It’s not as if Clewes did noth­ing. He had the ex­ist­ing ter­razzo floors ground down, in­stalled the nec­es­sary pip­ing and duct­work and added both a new el­e­va­tor shaft and a western en­trance, which is topped with a saw­tooth roof. His one re­gret? That he might have done less. “My only gripe is that I didn’t make the project as min­i­mal as it could be,” he says. “I should have been even more dis­creet.” Clewes’s re-de­sign may be the fur­thest thing from bold, in­so­much as it makes few ef­forts to trans­form the space. Yet it ra­di­ates con­fi­dence. It is the work of an ar­chi­tect who sees sub­tlety and trans­parency as the high­est mea­sures of suc­cess. In­stead of show­ing off, Clewes let the orig­i­nal build­ing – an idio­syn­cratic, cen­tury-old sky­scraper known as the Tower Au­to­mo­tive Build­ing – speak for it­self. (His of­fice worked in col­lab­o­ra­tion with ERA Ar­chi­tects, a firm with a her­itage-con­ser­va­tion prac­tice, which in­sisted that Clewes main­tain the orig­i­nal fa­cade, a de­mand with which he was all too happy to com­ply.) The build­ing is lo­cated in the Junc­tion Tri­an­gle, a west-end in­dus­trial (and now, mostly, postin­dus­trial) en­clave that de­vel­op­ers are tout­ing as the next big thing. The struc­ture was built from 1919 to 1920 by the North­ern

Alu­minum Com­pany, a maker of uten­sils, bot­tle caps and me­ter cov­ers, and was even­tu­ally taken over by auto-parts man­u­fac­turer Tower Au­to­mo­tive, the last oc­cu­pant be­fore the plant was shut­tered in 2006. The con­struc­tion of the tower con­sum­mated the rise of the Junc­tion Tri­an­gle, a re­gion that, like many in the city, seems to have ap­peared out of nowhere. The area was ru­ral as re­cently as the 1870s but by the early 20th cen­tury had be­come a mess of stock­yards, tav­erns, foundries and char­coal pools. The emer­gence of this west-end hub was part of a larger trans­for­ma­tion: Toronto, for­merly a port town cen­tred on Lake On­tario, was be­com­ing a rail me­trop­o­lis com­prised of mul­ti­ple, dif­fuse neigh­bour­hoods. (The name “Junc­tion” refers to a nearby con­ver­gence of rail­way lines.) For much of its life, the fac­tory – 10 storeys of brick and con­crete – was the tallest build­ing in sight. It’s still the quirki­est. Un­like the Vic­to­rian post-and-beam ware­houses of old Toronto, the Tower Au­to­mo­tive Build­ing is, well, a tower. One won­ders why the North­ern Alu­minum Com­pany com­mis­sioned such an oddly ver­ti­cal plant. Were they mo­ti­vated by land-use costs? Or was the build­ing’s en­gi­neer, C.A.P. Turner, an early prac­ti­tioner of con­crete-slab con­struc­tion, un­will­ing to do any­thing else? The most likely ex­pla­na­tion is that the alu­minum com­pany was try­ing, in its awk­ward way, to make its mark on the neigh­bour­hood. The ex­te­rior fa­cade of the tower has its share of el­e­gant de­tail­ing, from the belt course sep­a­rat­ing the ninth and 10th lev­els to the top-floor cor­nice ac­cented with den­tils. Yet these pre­ten­sions are un­der­cut by ex­pe­di­ence. The mush­room col­umns run­ning through­out the in­te­ri­ors are, by ne­ces­sity, bulky, since they’re made of crude, min­i­mally re­in­forced con­crete. (In­ter­est­ingly, they get pro­gres­sively smaller on each floor.) And the punched win­dows, Clewes no­ticed, aren’t as big as they should be: They don’t quite reach the pi­lasters that flank them on ei­ther side. This de­sign el­e­ment made sense – in 1919, thanks to the ad­vent of elec­tric­ity, fac­tory own­ers no longer needed ex­pan­sive fen­es­tra­tion – yet it looks cheap all the same. In short, the Tower Au­to­mo­tive Build­ing is nei­ther as sim­ple as it could have been nor as gra­cious as it pre­tends to be. In this re­spect, it is of a piece with many ear­lier Toronto build­ings: try-hard Vic­to­rian and Ed­war­dian struc­tures that are none­the­less often charm­ing, even as they fail to im­i­tate their more so­phis­ti­cated coun­ter­parts in New York or Lon­don. For Mary Mac­don­ald, the se­nior man­ager in charge of her­itage preser­va­tion in the city, the strange­ness and coarse­ness of the tower ac­counts for much of its ap­peal. “When peo­ple think about her­itage build­ings, it is com­mon for them to pic­ture a pretty Vic­to­rian world, whether it’s a com­mer­cial street front or a house with gin­ger­bread trim,” she says. “But her­itage value is found in so many other dif­fer­ent ways. I’m in­ter­ested in mak­ing sure that, when it comes to con­ser­va­tion in the city, we re­main broad-minded about what we con­sider to be valu­able – and we move be­yond the beauty con­test.” For con­ser­va­tion­ists, she says, the ideal ten­ants are the low-main­te­nance kind, who want to hon­our a build­ing with­out evis­cer­at­ing or san­i­tiz­ing it. When, in 2015, the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Cana­dian Art (or MOCCA, as it was then known) was evicted from its bland gallery in the trendy West Queen West neigh­bour­hood, the board seized the chance to move some­where bet­ter. The Tower Au­to­mo­tive Build­ing was empty, hav­ing been pur­chased by de­vel­oper Castle­point Numa, whose man­age­ment en­vi­sioned a mix of cul­tural and com­mer­cial uses for the site. MOCA Toronto now oc­cu­pies the bot­tom five floors. A few days after the gallery opened in Septem­ber 2018, I toured it with Heidi Reit­maier, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and CEO. The main in­te­rior fea­ture is the tem­po­rary-ex­hi­bi­tion space on the sec­ond and third floors, which will be de­voted to group and solo shows. The in­au­gu­ral ex­hi­bi­tion, Be­lieve, leaned heav­ily to­ward mixed me­dia, new me­dia and con­cep­tual works from Cana­dian and in­ter­na­tional artists, only one of whom, Bar­bara Kruger, is rock-star fa­mous. The in­te­ri­ors were no­table for their rugged­ness: fil­tered light, cracked ter­razzo and those mush­room col­umns, like chunky sta­lac­tites, that break up the cav­ernous space. MOCA Toronto’s other defin­ing fea­ture is its sense of civic pur­pose. The fourth and fifth floors in­clude stu­dios rented at be­low-mar­ket rates as well as a project space where emerg­ing and mid-ca­reer artists will be com­mis­sioned for site-spe­cific work. The ground floor, which Reit­maier calls the “front porch,” will al­ways have a par­tic­i­pa­tory art piece and will never cost money to en­ter. Cur­rently, the space fea­tures the work of Greek artist and ar­chi­tect An­dreas An­gel­i­dakis, who in­stalled 74 high-den­sity foam blocks – an in­vi­ta­tion to pa­trons to build their own forts. The new MOCA doesn’t have the wow fac­tor you’ll find in other re­pur­posed art in­sti­tu­tions, such as Her­zog & de Meu­ron’s re­cent Tate Mod­ern ex­ten­sion in Lon­don or the Zeitz Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Africa in Cape Town, a grain silo trans­formed into a kind of steam-punk api­ary by ec­cen­tric Bri­tish de­signer Thomas Heather­wick. But MOCA Toronto doesn’t need wow. The city is des­per­ate not for bold ur­ban fol­lies but for places to dis­play art, par­tic­u­larly the kind that is too new for legacy in­sti­tu­tions and too un­con­ven­tional for com­mer­cial gal­leries. The project suc­ceeds be­cause it is both sen­si­tive to the re­gion’s his­tory and re­spon­sive to its needs. It is a mu­seum for Toronto, not In­sta­gram. When Reit­maier took over as CEO in 2018, the de­sign for the retro­fit was al­most com­plete. The few changes she made were aimed at en­hanc­ing the sense of am­i­ca­bil­ity. She re­moved par­ti­tions on the ground floor and re­drew the eastern en­trance. “The door was a sin­gle-per­son en­trance and I made it a dou­ble, so vis­i­tors could come in side by side,” she says. Reit­maier wants the site, de­spite its im­pos­ing fa­cade and rough in­dus­trial am­bi­ence, to be known as the friendly neigh­bour­hood gallery. Plus, she adds, “most of us go to mu­se­ums in twos.” ar­chi­tect­sal­liance.com, er­aarch.ca, mu­se­u­mof­con­tem­po­rar­yart.ca

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