will alsop

 by Pieter Sijpkes, Montreal
skinmond@cole.on.ca 728 0008
Some architects try to repeat the elements of success of their last building the next time they receive a commission. For instance, Moshe  Safdie was much praised for the scenic monumental ramp in his National Art Gallery in Ottawa when it was opened, and when he received the commission to design a major addition to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, not long thereafter, he was determined to install a ramp in that project, never mind that he had to bend the building codes, never mind that there was no space for a ramp and that no glorious view to be had from it  in Montreal. Looking at the super elevated nature of Will Alsop's  Peckham Library, I can imagine that he made a similar decision to Moshe Safdie's: Wherever the next project will be, it's got to have legs. And a place he found, across the ocean, in arch conservative Toronto, Canada. And unlike Safdie's ramp, Alsop's strut their stuff in Toronto just fine.
The interesting question is how did Alsop manage to convince the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto to use the daring 'overhead' option while there was plenty of space for a traditional, lateral, addition below. The empty space South of the Ontario College of Arts building was the obvious and expected place for expansion. But Alsop succeeded in convincing the College, and the public living in the area (who were quite involved in the decision making process), that the vacant  land should be left fallow, and used for access to Grange park, which is situated behind the College. Alsop’s proposal was to put  an  elongated, two story box  over the existing building, supported on slanted,xx m structural legs, pushing the box  high  enough up in the air to allow condominium owners across McCaul street to keep their cherished view on Grange park over the roof of the existing buildings and below the floor of the addition. I ask the question how he convinced them because the much vaunted access to the park across the  land left vacant is not there. When I visited, a chain link fence crudely blocked access to the park, which undermines the whole premise of the project. Legal wrangling of some sort with the neighbouring Art Gallery of Ontario seems to be the reason for the offending fence, but while it is there it surely puts the gymnastics of putting the box so high above in question.
 Alsop’s design does not only bring up memories of the Peckham library; the slanted legs of both Peckham Library and Ocad echo the spidery tentacles of the designs of Archigram, a movement that Alsop knew intimately from his days as a student at the Architectural Association in London.

Archigram drawing                                            Ocad                                                                        
Putting buildings on legs is not a new thing in Canada. Montreal has a spectacular example of putting legs under  150 year old Christ Church Cathedral, to create an underground link between two  department stores adjacent to the church. This underground domain is part of Montreal's 'an indoor city' extending for many  kilometers. Toronto also has a subtstantial 'indoor city' ; the OCAD building is the first overground extension in the city.

Christ Church Cathedral Underpinning Montreal
When I went to visit the Sharp Centre for the first time I asked the taxi driver  to drop me off a few blocks before, so that I could take in the neighbourhood,  round the  corner of McCaul street and get a leisurely first glimpse of the Ocad's Sharp Centre. I had taken the same care when I  arrived in Paris several years ago, to see the Centre Pompidou. And indeed, seeing the Sharpe Centre’s huge pixillated box hover above the very ordinary Toronto city scape below was just as shocking as it was to see the Centre Pompidou’s constructivist bulk bursting out of the narrow Parisian streets that surround it.  Chalk one up for effect, Alsop! 

 OCAD                                  Centre Pompidou Paris
However where Pompidou’s shock is created by the muscle and brawn of the exposed structure and colourful ducts, Alsop’s shock is the result of a much more dainty frisson. First, to anyone familiar with Power point presentations there is a feeling of  fleetingness associated with the box's pixillated skin. Pixillation is used for fade-outs or as a means to subtly change from one electronic image to another. I could not help but expect the box to disappear into the clouds behind it when I saw it first. It was as fleeting as a blimp. The great flatness of the box also struck me. (I saw it on a sunless day). The work of Gustav Klimt, who managed to express much voluptuousness in collage-like paintings of remorseless flatness. Alsop’s origin as a painter seems to me to explain this similarity. I asked him whether he was not sad to see the muscular structure of  the structure covered up like a wrapped constructivist toy. He liked the way it came out he told me, and looking at the many studies for the exterior of the box, none referred to the powerfully diagonally braced frame that envelops the box,  top bottom and sides. The very complicated structure where the pointy columns hit the bottom of the box are covered as indiscriminately as the less complicated parts. Even though there is a structure as expressive as the famous diagonals of the Hancock tower in Chicago in there,  we get Klimt's  flatness instead. And that is one of the amazing aspects of the OCAD project. It sings its own tune, and, at this level it is a pretty original and seductive song.

OCAD construction  
 Approaching the building.

“The high heels are stuck in the sand, rather than clicking on the sidewalk", I murmured to myself as I walked past the first leg of the building at sidewalk level.
There are many ways for a column to reach the ground and  I feel that an important opportunity was missed here, when Alsop did not expose the muscular joint between the legs and the foundation. He could have followed the expressive column footings of Dutert's Gallerie des Machines, compared by Siegfried Gideon in Space Time and Architecture to Manet's painting  The Dancer of a woman delicately balancing on her toe. Or he could have referred to Viollet le Duc's early iron-stone details, which display joints of anatomical precision, or, he could have looked at any woman on heels walking down the sidewalk. Instead, the column footings stick their  head in the sand, not conveying the drama of the tons of weight being transferred from the tip of the column to the foundation at that very point.

OCAD construction photo                                                          OCAD detail
Gallerie des Machines by Dutert                       High heels                                            Viollet le Duc

To the first time visitor, the exterior of the OCAD project promises a lot: there is the unexplained super-elevation of the box, there is the bright red diagonal slash, connecting the roof of the existing building with the bottom of the box. There are the colourful legs that have a very strong presence at sidewalk level, and seem to work as 'attractors' of students, who always seem to  be standing around talking and smoking cigarettes.  And there is the indeterminedate scale of the box: is it one story, ..two..three? So, after finding the entry (an elegantly designed infill of what was an atrium between the two sections of the existing building),  one enters by descending several steps. Lowering this new entrance level several feet below grade is a nice touch: the OCAD project celebrates "freedom from the obsession with traditional floors" not only by rising high above the street, but also by casually lowering the entrance level, thus increasing the height of the impressive entrance hall. Just as an aside, it would have been exciting if this large hall had also been connected with the OCAD pavillion  across the street by an overhead walkway link; it would have strengthened the role of the hall as a the central node of the College, and a glass-clad tube veering across McCaul street,( and complicating the overall scheme) would have brought gladness to the heart of any Archigram devotee.

The interior

After these heady musings in the entrance hall, a series of painful disappointments awaited this excited visitor. Expecting motorized ascent to the great heights above, in 'Centre Pompidou, Beaubourg' fashion, going up the red inclined ramp turns out to be impossible. The red diagonal bar is a sealed fire escape, not a fun escalator. Instead, the trip up has to be made by sealed elevators, which drop you of at one of the two floors of the 'box'. And coming out of the elevator you experience the biggest disappointment: you think you're in the box, but you have no way of confirming it! Yes, you can see that you're high up, by looking out of the deeply-set, colourfully framed windows over the city and over the park. But you wouldn't know if you're on the top floor of the box or on the bottom floor, or whether you're in a regular office building or in a spectacularly elevated art school. Where is the glimpse from one floor to another ? Where is the peek through the floor to experience this dizzying effect of super elevation that has cost such a bundle? Or where even can we step on top of the table top, and at least feel the drama of all this drama? The answer is nowhere!
 "Budget restraint" or "fire regulations"  do not explain this lack of bravura. Anyone who can convince Toronto that their building addition has to be on 5 story stilts could have also convinced them of the need for an elevator with a few windows, or for the need of a  transparent  escalator, or a roof top deck with a view. Somehow Alsop, the knight in shining armour, brush in hand, lost heart at this point. And that's too bad.

That's too bad, because the OCAD addition is one of the most imaginative buildings of modern times, far outshining it's rival Toronto projects by Gehry and Libeskind, both now in preparation. OCAD has heart, OCAD has colour, OCAD has humour, OCAD is young. At night OCAD is a huge shimmering multicoloured mirage floating against the dark city sky. But what could have been a "musical mystery tour" in 3D  inside and out literally falls flat after we enter it. I have always doubted that those Klimt women would be fun to be with in flesh and blood. Alsop's very exciting and seductive project disappoints similarly. But on the outside the box got legs, legs that came all the way across the ocean to cheer up a whole neighbourhood in Toronto, to become not only an icon in the fabric of OCAD's buildings, but also in the fabric of all of Toronto.

I couldn' t help myself: the exterior of the OCAD centre is fun