Corkin Gallery

ARCHITECT Shim-Sutcliffe Architects
LOCATION Toronto, Ontario

The Corkin Gallery provides a public venue for the display of one of the best collections of fine art photography in Canada. It is located in what was originally a spirit storage room in the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, now in downtown Toronto’s Distillery District. The project celebrates the scale of the building’s vast industrial space while creating a series of modern gallery rooms in this new cultural district in the city. The legibility of the existing spaces–the walls, ceilings and architectural elements–and their relationship to the new insertions was fundamental to the design proposition.

Early excavations below the existing floor level revealed parallel rows of evenly spaced six-foot-high brick walls that divided the space into narrow three-foot-wide corridors. Formerly, large storage tanks sat on these turn-of-the-century masonry walls and the spaces between were used to run connecting service pipes. The project exposes this pattern of low walls, using them as a datum within and above into which new spaces are inserted. A new central gallery space was created, bracketed by the rhythm of the historic brick tank walls, and existing heavy timber columns were preserved, with new cruciform steel bases replacing the existing rubble stone foundations. This created stable connection points to the new concrete floor slab, and created a dialogue between new and existing structural elements.

Set five steps below the gallery entrance hall and street level, a vast 24-foot-high space is created. The exhibit surfaces are held away from massive masonry walls and the wood-framed ceiling plane. The main gallery’s hanging walls extend up 18 feet towards the existing ceiling, floating below the gently sloping ceiling to allow the original size and form of the existing space to still be read.

Beyond the main gallery, a steel bridge connects two mezzanine galleries and appears to float several inches above the historic masonry walls. Further enhancing this ethereal quality of the space, sliding translucent glass planes hang from the ceiling, both concealing and revealing the gallery’s library and study space from the public.

Below this upper level space, a smaller gallery is defined by brick walls on three sides to display smaller, more intimately scaled photographs. Two flights of wood stairs aligned with archways in the brick support walls lead to the upper galleries. By moving through and up either flight of inserted stairs, the visitor can experience the upper galleries and overlook the main gallery below.

Along with its spatial complexity, the material richness of the gallery sets it apart from the stereotypical pristine white-walled gallery. The original 2½”-thick planks of Douglas fir and cedar flooring were retained and recycled throughout the space, sanded and large holes filled with a clear resin in order to maintain the quality and texture of the distillery floor. Handrails made of glass and stainless steel connect sensitively to their century-old substrates, and provide a layer of human-scaled elements in a dramatically volumetric space.

Bernardo Gómez-Pimienta: The contemporary insertion is careful and clever, creating a spatial complexity that the original building lacked–while maintaining all the old structural elements. The dialogue between old and new is respectful and makes a better building than the simple sum of the elements used.

Nader Tehrani: An intelligent adaptation of the distillery infrastructure, repurposing the building to effective ends. The project shows that it is not enough to preserve the “history” of the building with a passive voice, but instead requires a strategic intervention, drawing out its latent qualities and giving it renewed meaning.

Client Jane Corkin
Architect Team Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe (principals), Denise Haradem (project architect)
Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership Ltd.
Mechanical Toews Engineering Inc.
Electrical Dynamic Designs and Engineering Inc.
Heritage ERA Architects Inc.
Architectural Lighting Suzanne Powadiuk Design Inc.
Building Code Leber Rubes Inc.
Metal Fabricators Tremonte Manufacturing Inc.
Builders Eisner Murray (Vic Furgiuele)
Area 6,000 ft2
Budget withheld
Completion November 2004