I feel very sorry indeed for our friends up north.
The Canadians are generally such sensible, mild-mannered people, that it must appall many of them to see what has been proposed for downtown Toronto this week by the world’s leading “starchitect”, Frank Gehry. In a press conference on Monday, scale models and plans for building a mixed-use residential, entertainment, retail, and educational development in Canada’s largest city were revealed by Mr. Gehry and his primary backer in the project. These plans include three new skyscrapers clad in metal “skins” of different types, a museum, and a university campus, among other features. Reactions on social media over the past 48 hours have spanned from dismissive eye-rolling over the design to a general consensus that the project looks quite literally like a pile of garbage, and moreover that the proposed skyscrapers in particular appear unstable.
A little over a year ago, when I first started complaining about the hideous Eisenhower Memorial which Gehry had been commissioned to design for the Nation’s capital, I went back and did some research on Gehry’s views. I found two quotes from Mr. Gehry particularly telling. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Gehry admitted, “I’m confused as to what’s ugly and what’s pretty.” That fact is patently obvious of course, from many of his executed buildings and unexecuted plans.
However the other quote has relevance for the good people of Toronto, Mr. Gehry’s home town. “City planning? Forget it,” Mr. Gehry said. “It’s a kind of bureaucratic nonsense. It has nothing to do with ideas. It only has to do with real estate and politics.”
It is therefore ironic but perhaps not surprising that this massive complex will be undertaken with the leadership of one of downtown Toronto’s real estate developers, who owns part of the site as well as a number of the buildings around it. The new museum will house said developer’s collection of modern and contemporary art. And a theatre currently owned by said developer at the site will be demolished, with a new one to be built in its place.
Naturally any such massive project is going to require political involvement to complete, since you do not undertake a project of this size without government participation in areas such as zoning, licensing, and permitting. On top of which, presumably Canadian taxpayers will be footing at least some part of the bill for things like road paving, traffic diversion, and utilities upgrades and repairs. Thus, the very “nonsense” which Mr. Gehry claims to abhor, is the same nonsense he himself will employ, in order to create this city of crumpled buildings.
The real nonsense of course is why Mr. Gehry continues to draw such attention and adulation, 20 years after the Guggenheim Bilbao was plunked down like a lumpy bit of skin-on mashed potato in Spain’s Basque Country. In looking at that structure, along with the Disney concert hall, the pending Eisenhower Memorial proposal, his failed Corcoran and Paris and New York projects, and now the blighting of downtown Toronto, one has to ask the question: haven’t we seen all of this before? Making blobby shapes and then covering them in a “skin” seems to be all that Mr. Gehry is capable of doing. When it comes down to it, is he really such a creative genius, or isn’t he really just a one-trick pony in the world of architecture?
For now anyway, none of Mr. Gehry’s structures actually blot the downtown Washington cityscape, and presumably the size of this commission in his home town will keep him far too occupied to try to build anything else here in DC for the foreseeable future. And that being the case, perhaps I ought not to pity the Canadians so much. Instead, I ought to feel a deep sense of gratitude toward them, for keeping this individual away from my city. Though that being said, I would not wish a Frank Gehry design on my worst enemy.