Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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Toronto's renaissance

Architectural changes that
have transformed Toronto

Until recently, Toronto was known for such architectural icons as the CN Tower (the world's tallest at 553 metres), the curved towers of its City Hall and Mies van der Rohe's black minimalist TD Towers. On the whole, not the kind of lineup that drew tourists on its architectural merits alone.

But over the past few years, Toronto's cityscape has literally transformed. Bold architectural enhancements to the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Royal Conservatory of Music, and striking new cultural buildings including the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the Ontario College of Art and Design and the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the revamped Distillery District are eloquent symbols of Toronto's architectural renaissance.

This past June, the city inaugurated a major new arts festival, Luminato (tel: 416-368-3100; www.luminato.com) with eight world premieres which coincided with the opening of the Royal Ontario Museum's daring new Crystal addition. With more than 1000 artists from Canada and around the world celebrating new benchmarks in music, theatre, dance, literature, design and visual arts, the 10-day festival cemented Toronto's place as an international destination to experience arts and culture.

And it's not as if Toronto was short of world-class performances. The Queen City has long been rated among the world's top three for live theatre (after London and New York). It's renowned for its international film festival (TIFF), which is a magnet for the glitterati every September, as well as its year-long slate of live jazz, and a creative clutch of resident artists, writers, composers, filmmakers, musicians and designers.

But never has the city been more exciting to visit, with intimate neighbourhoods redeveloped with lively cafés and lounges, interesting boutiques and galleries. And a trip along Toronto's cultural corridor will treat you to striking new architecture that speak volumes about the city's flourishing creativity.


Avenue of the Arts
Start at the southwest corner of Bloor Street and Queen's Park Circle. Here, German architect Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queen's Park; tel: 416-586-8000; www.rom.on.ca) (ROM) juts over the sidewalk, leaving passersby dumbfounded by its seemingly precarious balance. The tip of the aluminum-and-glass Michael Lee-Chin Crystal hangs 10 storeys above a "Crystal Point" marker on the sidewalk below.

Inspired by the ROM's magnificent gem collection, the new space was named for its angled, multi-peaked construction. The addition, along with the restructuring of the original 1912-1914 ROM building is, at $250 million, the largest heritage restoration project in Canada. It is also considered one of the most challenging construction ventures in North America for its engineering complexity and innovative construction methods.

Inside, the Crystal is composed of five interlocking, self-supporting structures that rest on the ROM's original buildings. These prismatic shapes create massive galleries, each distinguished by angled walls, slashed windows and natural light. These spaces will showcase exceptional artifacts from Canada's First Peoples, China, Japan and Korea, as well as treasures of art, archaeology and natural science. A monster dinosaur skeleton from the ROM's incredible collection will "look out a window" at passersby on Bloor Street.

The unique architectural details include the "Stair of Wonders" that links the floors, and a vertical void - now dubbed the "Spirit House" - that rises five stories from the main floor is traversed by bridges at each level. If anything, the Spirit House reflects the sensitivity of ROM's CEO William Thorsell. Starting on the ground floor, which is set with cubic metal chairs custom-designed by Libeskind, this has become a place of contemplation enhanced by mystic music and sounds.

Thorsell explained how he approached the void and "listened to the building metaphorically," then requested "an oral artwork." The result: a recording of 20,000 sounds - from birds to raindrops to singing voices in many languages, and some sounds tied to global events, like the Muslim call to prayer timed with sunrise and sunset in Mecca - that resonates from the Spirit House and throughout the galleries.

In conversation prior to the opening of the new addition, Thorsell's exhilaration was palpable as he praised the new ROM as "conspicuous evidence of the change in Toronto." To the critics, Libeskind said, "The building is ambitious, but a great city like Toronto deserves nothing less."

Whatever your impression, don't leave before visiting C5, the fine dining room on the fifth floor. It's worth lingering over a signature ROM-tini or café au lait, for views down to the CN Tower or the treed Philosopher's Walk that runs behind the museum to the historic buildings of the University of Toronto.


Roam around the ROM
Leaving the ROM, cross the street to the new Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art (111 Queen's Park; tel: 416-586-8080; www.gardiner museum.on.ca). A quintessentially modernist jewel box, it just completed a $20-million reconstruction by Toronto heavyweights Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB).

Canada's only museum dedicated to ceramic art, it houses more than 2900 rare works from ancient American pieces to the exquisite 16th- to 19th-century pottery and porcelain from the George and Helen Gardiner collection. Collectors of art, glass and ceramics will appreciate the museum's gift shop as a source for stunning, handcrafted items. For a delicious lunch with lovely views, stop at Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner, on the third floor.

From here, cut through Queen's Park or follow the avenue south as it curves past the Parliament Buildings to the northwest corner of College Street where the Leslie Dan Pharmacy Building (117 College Street; http://www.pharmacy.utoronto.ca/ about/contact.htm) stands as the University of Toronto's facility for pharmacy teaching and research. Designed by Pritzker-winning architect Sir Norman Foster, the interior of the glassy edifice exposes two brilliantly glowing pods that seem incongruously suspended mid-air. One pod houses a lecture hall and reading room, the other a classroom and faculty lounge.

Across College Street, Queen's Park Circle becomes University Avenue. Toronto's prettiest boulevard, with gardens and statues, it is flanked by world-renowned hospitals and institutions. Follow this to the corner of Queen Street, where the 2000-seat Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West; tel: 416-363-6671; www.fourseasonscentre.ca), completed last year, houses the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet.

At first glance, the modernist building designed by Toronto architect Jack Diamond seems simple and boxy. The building is most beautiful when illuminated at night, when its floating wood staircase shimmers through the glass walls. As one who frequents this serene building for opera, ballet and jazz performances, I'm always enthralled by the gorgeous productions afforded by the acoustically-magnificent, five-tiered auditorium. Before visiting, it's worth checking local listings for free lunch-time concerts or inquiring about building tours.


Agog at the AGO
A couple of blocks south, turn west on Dundas Street towards the Art Gallery of Ontario, which has been strikingly sidelined at McCaul Street by the Ontario College of Art & Design's (100 McCaul Street; www.ocad.ca) Sharp Centre for Design.

Created by British architect Will Alsop, the huge, checkered "pencil box" that sits suspended on "coloured pencils" seems to defy gravity. As a building that six years ago provoked comments from overwhelming praise to ridicule, it is recently being touted on the Toronto architectural scene as a marker for new inspiration.

The Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West; tel: 877-225-4246; www.ago.net)(AGO) is itself a work of art in progress. Soon to be transformed by an exciting addition designed by Toronto-native Frank Gehry (the architect behind the Guggenheim Bilbao), the museum's 19th- and 20th-century buildings get a new facade incorporating a sweeping glass and timber canopy.

Matthew Teitelbaum, the AGO's director and chief curator, speaks eloquently of the gallery's new "invigorating context" that will impact peoples' understanding of the meeting between art and space.

The museum is globally recognized for the world's largest collection of Henry Moore sculptures, as well as magnificent works by the Group of Seven, not to mention paintings by Rembrandt, Renoir, Picasso and Matisse. Art aficionados can add Toronto as a destination to view masterworks such as Peter Paul Ruben's Massacre of the Innocents, coveted by major international institutions; Bernini's one-and-a-half-metre bronze Christ Corpus, recently donated by the Murray Frum Family; and an old favourite, Thom Thompson's West Wind, an anchor for the contemporary collection.

If you visit before the AGO closes in late fall to complete the Gehry reconstruction, drop in to see the exhibit of Medieval and Renaissance objects from London's Victoria and Albert Museum, the contemporary art from India, and the artifacts crafted by British Columbia's Tsimshian which just recently returned to Canada after spending 150 years in Britain.


East-End Eden
East of Toronto's cultural corridor and a little past St. Lawrence Market, it's worth checking out the happenings in the Distillery District, a revitalized 19th-century whiskey-making complex that has blossomed into a delightful hub of cafés and galleries around the recently opened $14-million Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street; tel: 416-866-8666; www.youngcentre.ca).

Designed by KPMB Architects , the centre was built inside two whiskey tank houses, and is now home to the Soulpepper Theatre company, the George Brown Theatre School's professional actor-training program, a reference library and Toronto's independent arts community. The facility is unique for combining professional performance spaces and educational components.

At the end of the day, regardless of whether you've savoured the treasures of each building, it should be clear to you that the architectural projects of Toronto's arts institutions are garnering new attention for Toronto as a cultural destination on the world stage.

The AGO's director Matthew Tietelbaum is heartened by the change. "These buildings revived energy and ambition. And Luminato presented another layer of Toronto's rebirth. But, in the end, we will judged by our programming." Given the lineup of programs planned for the next few years, Toronto seems poised to shine even brighter as a global destination for the arts.

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