The Art Gallery of Ontario launches a major expansion with ‘super-subtle’ architecture

The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on Nov. 13, 2008.Mark Blinch/Reuters

The Art Gallery of Ontario has chosen the designers for its next major expansion – led by an architect known for her subtlety and her expertise with visual art.

Selldorf Architects, headed by Annabelle Selldorf, will lead the design team for the expansion in collaboration with Toronto firms Diamond Schmitt and Two Row Architect. The project, dubbed AGO Global Contemporary, will consist almost entirely of new gallery space to display contemporary art. The gallery aims to begin construction, if planning approvals are in hand, in 2024.

The project has a straightforward mandate, according to AGO director and chief executive officer Stephan Jost. “It’s simply gallery space,” Mr. Just said. “Not a gift shop, not storage. This is just public space so our curators can put together great exhibitions from our collection.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego completed a major renovation and expansion with Selldorf Architects, the lead designers for the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Global Contemporary project.Nicholas Venezia/Selldorf Architects

Mr. Jost said the expansion will provide big and flexible volumes suited to the varied media of contemporary art. The AGO wants to use these galleries to reach a young and diverse audience, which the gallery has been working to welcome in recent years. “We want the work we show to reflect the city that we serve,” he said.

Global Contemporary will be the seventh expansion of the AGO since it was founded in 1900. The last one, led by Frank Gehry, opened in 2008.

According to the AGO, the new galleries would add about 40,000 square feet of gallery space. The institution now has about 135,000 square feet of galleries.

The AGO imagines the expansion as a six-storey tower rising near the southeast corner of the building, facing Grange Park. This is near the AGO’s existing tower of galleries designed by Mr. Gehry and the adjacent OCAD University complex, with its flying tabletop designed by Will Alsop and a planned future expansion by architects Morphosis.

“The Gehry and the Alsop are big statements and very Expressionist,” Mr. Just said. “So I knew that competing visually was not the right way to go. This addition had to be super-subtle.”

For subtlety, the AGO turned to Ms. Selldorf and her firm. A German-born New Yorker, Ms. Selldorf leads a studio with extensive experience in gallery architecture and exhibition design. This month, they opened a major expansion of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Ms. Selldorf described the AGO commission as challenging and exciting. “It is a very complex job, and we have to get our feet wet and understand the visitor’s experience,” she said. “The architectural form will follow.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.Nicholas Venezia/Selldorf Architects

Among the key issues, she said, are providing a clear sense of orientation to visitors. This was a similar challenge in the San Diego museum, she said. That museum, like the AGO, had been expanded piecemeal over time.

Mr. Just said her studio is well-prepared for the complexities. He praised Ms. Selldorf’s design of the Neue Galerie in New York, which converted a 1914 Beaux-Arts mansion into a gallery. “The house had a really strong personality, and her architecture is not showy at all,” Mr. Just said. “You just feel that it’s right.”

AGO’s leadership interviewed the entire design team, Mr. Just said. He expressed confidence that Diamond Schmitt will be “extremely competent and effective.” Brian Porter of Two Row is “an excellent listener and communicator” who will ensure that the museum “is very specifically of this place.”

What will that look like? Ms. Selldorf would not speculate. However, she said: “I think great architecture leaves a quiet imprint on the visitor’s memory. Not the first thing – hopefully they remember the art that they look at first – but the two go hand in hand.”

Mr. Just struck a similar note. “It’s going to be a damn good piece of architecture,” he said. “It’s not going to be the loudest building on the skyline, but it’s going to be one of the best.”

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