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The outlines of Toronto, old and new

By Mark Stevens
Sunday, November 1, 2009

You stroll along Toronto's maple-lined Avenue Road, past the forbidding facades of the university's Victorian buildings, and you think you have a fix on the city.

So Toronto.

You stop at the Royal Ontario Museum, where symmetrical windows frown disapprovingly on a group of kids rolling in the grass beside a stone lion.

So museum.

Then you turn the corner and look up at the jagged lines of the new Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, an addition grafted onto the Royal Ontario's early-20th-century facade.

The contrast between old and new hits you like a punch in the stomach.

It's also a clear sign of change in a city with a longtime reputation for architecture that ranged from staid to garish, with a pit stop at tacky. Not anymore.

Last year, Conde Nast Traveler called the Royal Ontario's addition one of the "seven wonders of the modern world." The Art Gallery of Ontario, a cultural icon, reopened after a facelift by Frank Gehry. And the American Institute of Architects announced that Toronto would host its 2017 convention.

All this points to an architectural renaissance that, as Toronto Star architecture critic Christopher Hume has written, "will forever change the way we think about" Canada's largest city. Or maybe it's just the excuse you need to jump on a plane for Toronto, whether your druthers tend toward new places for old stuff, grand old places, new homes for arts and culture or just old places made new again.

* * *

Built of five interlocking prisms of aluminum-clad strips and glass, highlighted by black geometric slabs, the Royal Ontario Museum's Michael Chin-Lee Crystal gallery shadows Bloor Street, looming above geometric black granite benches. Its angles are askew. It juts over the sidewalk like a mountain about to fall. Its edges stab the sky like stilettos. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, it has prompted criticism since construction began two years ago, among visitors who liked the old place as well as architecture critics who lambasted the design. Imagine New York's Museum of Natural History with the Guggenheim sticking out of its ribs.

But surprisingly, once you're inside, the contrast works. The gallery is an ideal backdrop for the dinosaur skeletons and Japanese ceramics and the new Schad Gallery of Biodiversity that it houses.

"Strange," says a museum security guard. "People come up to me all the time. Tell me they used to hate it. Now they love it."

One thing for sure: The Crystal Gallery has made the Royal Ontario Museum a new Toronto landmark. It's a conversation piece and a noteworthy addition to both the Bloor streetscape and Canada's answer to the Smithsonian, a collection of 6 million items housed in 40 galleries highlighting world culture and natural history.

* * *

While the first ROM was being constructed, around 1911, a romantic financier named Sir Henry Pellat was building a castle.

Casa Loma is a world -- and a century -- apart from the ultramodern Crystal gallery.

Oaks a hundred feet high dance in the breezes above cobblestone paths climbing a steep hill. Towers capped by tiled candle snuffer roofs guard the limestone walls. Rough-hewn battlements surround the 30-room castle.

Inside the great room, oak wainscoted walls reach to 60 feet. Ornate carved plaster ceilings dominate the library, and herringbone hardwood floors march from bookcase to towering bookcase.

The place comes complete with climbs to the towers, secret passageways and a reputation for ghosts.

In line just in front of me, two men from Belgium wait to buy tickets.

"How could we miss this?" says one. "Canada's most beautiful castle."

Best yet, the stroll from Casa Loma to the nearest subway stop is another treat for architectural aficionados. This is Forest Hill, one of Toronto's most established and prestigious residential areas.

Think Tudoresque Beverly Hills with maples.

* * *

Symphony-goers have Roy Thomson Hall, and opera buffs have the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (another recent addition to the skyline). Last November, art lovers got their new home: the redesigned Art Gallery of Ontario.

A four-story sky-blue box faced in titanium houses contemporary art right beside Grange Park, a green oasis that reclines between the gallery and the surreal box-and-spider-legs building that houses the Ontario College of Art and Design.

A great glass-and-Douglas-fir structure soars along the gallery front, 600 feet long and 70 feet above street level. It looks like a breaking wave.

Gehry spent his earliest years in Toronto, so this was a project close to his heart. "The Art Gallery of Ontario is where I first experienced art as a child," he wrote upon the gallery's reopening, "and it was Grange Park where I played."

Given Gehry's prominence and the sheer visual force of this transformation in a setting worth a visit in its own right -- Toronto's Chinatown rings with a singsong of dialects -- the new AGO is a sure sign of the rebirth of Toronto architecture.

* * *

Walk into the Distillery District, just east of Toronto's downtown core, and squint. Add a bit of rain, turn down the lights and you could be an extra in a Marlon Brando flick: Toronto meets "On the Waterfront."

This area, a national historic site, is considered one of the best examples of preserved Victorian industrial architecture. They started making whiskey here in 1837, but nowadays the former distillery mostly exports culture and commerce.

Stroll the red brick walkways past a row of converted tank houses, great rambling buildings where the whiskey vats were originally stored and that now house shops and galleries. Take in some theater at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, built from two conjoined red brick sheds with forest green trim.

Have a beer on the terrace at Mill Street Brewery. Where factory workers once distilled whiskey there is now a microbrewery complete with giant copper kettles. Where brawny longshoremen once manhandled huge barrels, flower baskets now brighten iron railings that guard tables, shaded by red and black umbrellas, scattered across a patio.

Shop for that perfect gift at one of the 18 upscale retail stores; buy art at one of the 15 galleries; bop to the riffs at the annual jazz festival; venture out for more of the city's architectural gems, such as the St. Lawrence Market, Union Station or BCE Place, the great arched "cathedral" that hosts the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Or just sit tight in this historical haven. And maybe order one more Mill Street beer.

Mark Stevens is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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