Architecture for Art’s Sake

Ever since Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York (1943-59), the relationships between architects and the art galleries and museums they design have become increasingly complex. From the demonic triumph of the iconic meaning of Wright’s building over the art it would enclose, to the flanged gigantism of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, which slices exhibition space into succulent, expressionistic places which, visually speaking, are their own reward, museums by architects often seem deliberately positioned to destabilize and compete with the very artefacts they were built to display. There are exceptions, like Kahn’s Kimball. But much of the time, it’s as if the architect, in designing a gallery, seems compelled to posit his or her own inventiveness against that of art to be installed in the building.

Hariri Pontarini Architects’ MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, Ontario, tells a rather different story. “I asked a lot of people in Barrie which art galleries they liked,” principal-in-charge Siamak Hariri told me, as we visited the new gallery a few weeks ago. “The answer I got was ‘none!'” I asked him which galleries he liked himself. Carlo Scarpa’s Museo di Castelvecchio (1956-73), came the answer, and, perhaps more significantly for the MacLaren, the Muse Picasso in Paris. “The Picasso museum is very intimately scaled,” says Hariri, “and you are constantly surprised by the inventive views through the building. Basically, it’s like exhibiting art in a really nice home. That’s what we picked up on.” The strange thing about the Muse Picasso–maybe it’s a compliment to the project–is that neither of us could remember who designed it, or at least adapted it for a museum.

The notion of a home for art is directly relevant to the design of the MacLaren. The MacLaren that was–which this new gallery has now replaced–was a stately Barrie house built in 1868, ultimately too small and, frankly, too quaint for the gallery’s present plans and ambitions. But, notes Hariri, “People had a deep, passionate attachment to that old house-gallery set in the woods.” Which is one reason why, as MacLaren director/curator William Moore puts it, “everybody’s expectations for the new gallery were that it should not be mystifying!” And mystifying it isn’t.

The MacLaren is more than an art gallery. It’s an art centre. This makes a difference. Hariri says that in the course of developing the design for the project, he met with 35 different groups of people, all central to the building’s future use–only one group of them being artists. “The building,” notes its architect, “is just as much about community as it is about art.” According to William Moore, every year 45,000 students visit and work in the gallery’s education centre. “We are the largest outreach distributors in the area,” Moore maintains, “and maybe in all of Canada.” The building, therefore, had to function “as the centre of a hub from which other ideas and activities can be generated.”

Adding to the design complexities of the project was the fact that the new cultural centre had to include the adaptive reuse of two already existing buildings: the city’s venerable Carnegie Public Library (c.1917) and the space of the not-very-distinguished 1964 addition to the library, as well as the creation of entirely new galleries, work spaces and administrative spaces.

Hariri Pontarini’s scheme posited a cluster of three buildings, their design weights and valences subtly adjusted into what has turned out to be a remarkably satisfying whole. “Half of the problem lay in undoing,” notes Hariri, who maintains that he spent a great deal of time standing across the street from the site, imagining and then adjusting the building’s new sight lines-to-be, and weighing its future transpa-rency/opacity ratios. There were some delicate difficulties: for example, the seamless recasting and reincorporating of the old Carnegie library (the thought of which brought acute anxiety to the city’s heritage-minded citizens), and the removal of the 1964 addition (an intervention the architect jokingly refers to as “a small renovation”). And there was the matter of the building’s location. Because it is situated on a steeply sloping hill–on Barrie’s Mulcaster Street, a thoroughfare connecting the city’s civic square (onto which the Carnegie Library building fronts) to the shoreline of Lake Simcoe further down its course–there inevitably arose what Hariri calls “matters of sectional interest”: subtle questions addressing the mechanics of providing barrier-free accessibility for the building, along with a certain welcoming stability, an island of stasis, to be incarnated in the gallery’s eventual entranceway.

The new MacLaren thus proceeds by degrees of design engagement, from preservation (the Carnegie Library space) to alteration (the 1964 addition) to invention (the new galleries and administrative spaces), the whole scheme persuasively unified by a remarkable sensitivity to materials and their employment as agents of spatial lucidity. Basically, the MacLaren is a virtuoso enactment of design tact–a kind of architectural postscript (even though it was actually begun earlier) to the firm’s understated but highly authoritative and spatially refined McKinsey Company Headquarters at the north edge of the University of Toronto campus (see CA February 2001). As with the McKinsey building, everything about the MacLaren feels right.

You access the gallery by the main entrance on Mulcaster Street, guided to the doors by a slightly bowed front walkway-wall and sheltered there by a copper canopy. Once inside, you find yourself not in any sort of quiescent, abashed, or forbidding lobby, but, rather, in the thick of things, in the project’s single most kinetic space: a surprisingly large, airy, double-storey hall, locked down, as it were, by the charming but rather surprising inclusion, at its centre, of a working fireplace (you’re not supposed to have fireplaces in galleries, as I recall; something about soot and heat and sparks and a possible art-destroying conflagration). A fireplace with luxurious chairs, and a selection of books and magazines. Has any gallery ever seemed so cozy?

You can proceed, from this central fireplace-node in the building’s spatial configuration, in five different directions: sharply right, into the gallery’s restaurant, and further, down a ramp, into its gift shop (which, lower than the restaurant, is overlooked by it); left to the reception desk and into the gallery’s administrative offices; further right, out into the small sculpture-court, around which cluster the centre’s three main buildings; further right still into the much-visited children’s centre and education areas; or up the handsomely designed staircase to the MacLaren’s three major galleries.

One of the great pleasures offered by this radiant, skylit central hall, in addition to its piazza-like vitality, is the chance it affords to understand the cunning adhesion, each to each, of the gallery’s volumetric parts–in particular, the way the stately brick south wall of the former Carnegie building floats, by means of a cunning reveal (“nothing touches anything else”) and the delicately adjusted stairway, like a highly persuasive, hologram-like reconstruction of a cherished architectural memory. In fact, the south Carnegie wall was knocked down and rebuilt, the architects having commissioned new “vintage” bricks in order to facilitate the perfect elision of new and new/old. Upstairs, in the Hett Gallery–the MacLaren’s largest–the vast exhibition space (with its uncharacteristic dark floors) is now exhilaratingly uninterrupted thanks to Hariri’s exchanging of the building’s former columns for a system of horizontal beams. And Hariri kept the library’s magnificent, vaulted windows–their frames, anyhow–but rebuilt them too. The resulting room is now one of the most spatially distinguished, perfectly scaled galleries anywhere.

As is also the case with the two other galleries on the second floor, the most problematic and yet skilfully resolved being the smaller of the two: a long slender gallery which
, presumably an awkwardly disposed space, Hariri describes as “a box acting as a beam.” Basically, it now holds itself up, with one column below it (“that’s how we got the transparency”). At the end of it is one of Hariri Pontarini’s trademark magisterial windows–a huge, exquisitely finished gallery-high vertical slot, muted with a scrim, that looks out onto Lake Simcoe.

“Director William Moore wanted long views,” notes Siamak Hariri. And he got them–horizontally, vertically, and, if you like, back through history and out into the gallery’s burgeoning future. ca

Gary Michael Dault writes about art for The Globe and Mail.

Client: MacLaren Art Centre

Architect team: Siamak Hariri (partner-in-charge), Sara Tetlow, Michael Boxer (associates), Ama Chisholm, John Cook, Jim Forester, Lance Kaprielian, Peter Lloyd Jones, Cindy Rendely, Robert Smyth, Domenic Virdo

Structural: Yolles Partnership

Mechanical: Smith & Andersen Consulting Engineering

Electrical: Mulvey & Banani

Landscape: MBTW

Interiors: Hariri Pontarini Architects

Contractor: Bertram Construction & Design Ltd.

Area: 25,000 square feet

Budget: $5 million

Completion: June 2001

Photography: Darius Himes