Work of Art

The degree to which there exists if not actual antagonism, then at best a subtle kind of dtente between artists and architects (the standoff seems to have begun with Wright and Mies) is so marked it has come, over the years, to be faintly amusing, if predictable. Architects are at least half artist, and in the case of the really good ones, considerably more. You get the feeling they sort of vaguely resent, and not without reason, being asked to shelter and enhance primary works of artists within the walls of primary works of their own. As a result, you can pretty much number successful galleries by architects on the fingers of one hand.

But from now on, any tally of superlative achievement in gallery design will certainly have to include Toronto’s Corkin Shopland Gallery by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects. The vast new gallery, which opened a few months ago in the city’s historic Distillery District, is a canny and exhilarating amalgam of invention and reclamation, of bold newness and sensitive accommodation. Actively engaged with the building’s historic givens–the 550-square-metre space was originally used for the manufacture and storage of spirits and dates from 1873–the architects clearly welcomed the opportunity to design a gallery contrary to the conventional white cube. They energetically honoured the raw muscular space and the venerable, palpable materiality of the heritage factory/warehouse’s Victorian construction vocabulary of brick, timber and glass.

The grey and bitterly cold January morning I toured the new gallery with architect Brigitte Shim, it looked as vast, complex and dramatic–almost operatic–as one of the Piranesi carceri, if a tad less daunting. Its titanic size, which is clearly both a curatorial gift and challenge, gives rise immediately to a certain robust quickening in the viewer of the urge to explore the space and discover its contents–which makes the gallery a sort of carapace for the pleasure inherent in arriving at the meaning suspended within any serious work of art. Where the traditional white cube gallery brightly bounces its proffered artworks off the walls and into your sensibility, this great grey freighter of a gallery beckons you into its hold and offers up the mysterious aura of its space as an intensifying matrix within which the viewer may gradually discover the unfolding meanings in the artworks to be found there. Whereas the white cube glares and rattles, this new gallery softens and hushes. In the end, the building actually mimics the inexorable, labyrinthine process of aesthetic attainment and acquisition.

When you talk with Shim, the words “original, reveal, retain” toll like bells through her conversation. Managed with such intensity, however, the breezy word “retrofit” here seems scarcely adequate to the task. “We were trying to avoid making a hermetic box,” Shim notes, as we head into the space, “and instead we were intent upon revealing the layers of history in which the gallery space lies immersed.”

When you enter the gallery from the laneway on which it fronts, you enter a long, transverse “vestibule” gallery lambent with gentle northern light which, as Shim points out, offers as much exhibition wall space as “any decent Queen Street gallery.” Which it certainly does. It’s like an outrigger to the mother ship.

From the already large vestibule space, you head down four steps from grade into what appears to be the gallery’s Great Hall, a vast, slightly sunken atrium, rhythmically eloquent with the building’s original brick pillars–which have been fully revealed by excavating four more feet into the space. The pillars carry, as well as the load of the building, a set of new datum conditions for the layering of the space. This prodigious Hall (the gallery’s Middle Earth or Freudian Ego) is bracketed at each end by a chording of four low, parallel brick walls, echoes of the beefy structural imperatives of a building originally designed to support and store gigantic vats of liquors and spirits. Shim draws our attention to the firm’s careful retention of the original exterior and interior brick walls, and the recasting and nuancing of the factory’s persisting structure in the four vast original skylights which illuminate the exhibition spaces.

Over at the left of the Great Hall, there is an “inserted” ramp making up a portion of the gallery’s semi-private circulation path, a route that leads down to the grotto-like “service zone” of kitchen, offices and storage–around and beneath the Great Hall’s exhibition space. This zone gives a sense, Shim says, “of the found condition of the building,” as do the magnificent brick arches through which you pass as you follow the circulation path or descend the cruciform sets of stairways at the end of the Great Hall. Moving through a series of low stalwart arches that once supported the heavy vats of booze stored overhead, these crypto-sarcophagi also serve to define a number of shadowy, intimate gallery spaces in the bowels of the building. Shim says they recall for her the “wild, subterranean condition of the crypto-porticos of Hadrian’s Villa.” This lower part of the gallery is its sinewy heart and Freudian Id, architecturally speaking.

The upper portion of the gallery has as much airy lift as the lower portion has a ruminative intensity. “In a typical gallery,” Shim points out, “you’re always looking at the space frontally. Up here, you can encounter it diagonally.” Which is a much more energetic condition. Up on the second level, which feels like a spacious, bifurcated mezzanine-domain, there are two bright gallery areas connected by a massive yet airy steel bridge running across the end of the Great Hall the way the Captain’s bridge on a ship is cross-thrust out over the ship’s decks and prow. The bridge, a miniature Ponte Vecchio within the gallery, is home not only to the office of gallery co-director Jane Corkin, but also to a richly stocked art library, which can be occluded by sliding panels which are designed to serve as panoramic back- projection screens. The burnished, golden floors are first-growth pine, re-milled and carefully filled in “as a reminder,” Shim notes, “of the industrial life the building had before.” These evanescent upper spaces are as buoyant as the lower spaces are sonorous–the domain of the gallery’s mercurial Superego.

“The gallery provides a whole new set of exhibition options,” Shim says, with a nice sense of understatement. “It offers a whole new range of curatorial possibilities.” For sure. “After all,” she says, “in the end, it’s not about the building, but about looking at art.” Well, okay, but regardless of what goes into it, the new Corkin Shopland Gallery is a magisterial work all on its own. The art to be installed there will have its expressive work cut out for it.

Gary Michael Dault writes regularly for The Globe and Mail.


Client: Corkin Shopland Gallery

Architect Team: Brigitte Shim, Howard Sutcliffe, Denise Haradem, Betsy Williamson

Project Manager: Eisner Murray

Structural: Blackwell Engineering

Mechanical: Toews Engineering Inc.

Electrical: Dynamic Designs and Engineering Inc.

Heritage: ERA Architects Inc.

Lighting: Suzanne Powadiuk Design Inc.

Building Code: Leber Rubes

Metal Fabricators: Tremonte Manufacturing Inc.

Area: 6,000 ft2

Budget: withheld

Completion: November 2004

Photography: James Dow