The Unshowy Showcase
21 Feb 2019
MOCA Unshowy

A former factory turned intentionally raw gallery, Toronto’s new Museum of Contemporary Art was crafted for the city it serves, not Instagram

When Peter Clewes, principal of the Toronto firm architectsAlliance, was hired to turn an abandoned factory into an art gallery, he committed to using the lightest touch possible. Upon visiting the newly opened site, called the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto, one might struggle to spot evidence of his and his firm’s work. “If you’re not even aware of what we did,” says Clewes, “that’s good news.”

It’s not as if Clewes did nothing. He had the existing terrazzo floors ground down, installed the necessary piping and ductwork and added both a new elevator shaft and a western entrance, which is topped with a sawtooth roof. His one regret? That he might have done less. “My only gripe is that I didn’t make the project as minimal as it could be,” he says. “I should have been even more discreet.”

Clewes’s re-design may be the furthest thing from bold, insomuch as it makes few efforts to transform the space. Yet it radiates confidence. It is the work of an architect who sees subtlety and transparency as the highest measures of success. Instead of showing off, Clewes let the original building – an idiosyncratic, century-old skyscraper known as the Tower Automotive Building – speak for itself.

…The building is located in the Junction Triangle, a west-end industrial (and now, mostly, postindustrial) enclave that developers are touting as the next big thing. The structure was built from 1919 to 1920 by the Northern Aluminum Company, a maker of utensils, bottle caps and meter covers, and was eventually taken over by auto-parts manufacturer Tower Automotive, the last occupant before the plant was shuttered in 2006.

…For much of its life, the factory – 10 storeys of brick and concrete – was the tallest building in sight. It’s still the quirkiest. The mushroom columns running throughout the interiors are, by necessity, bulky, since they’re made of crude, minimally reinforced concrete. (Interestingly, they get progressively smaller on each floor.) And the punched windows, Clewes noticed, aren’t as big as they should be: They don’t quite reach the pilasters that flank them on either side. This design element made sense – in 1919, thanks to the advent of electricity, factory owners no longer needed expansive fenestration – yet it looks cheap all the same.

For Mary MacDonald, the senior manager in charge of heritage preservation in the city, the strangeness and coarseness of the tower accounts for much of its appeal. …For conservationists, she says, the ideal tenants are the low-maintenance kind, who want to honour a building without eviscerating or sanitizing it.

…A few days after the gallery opened in September 2018, I toured it with Heidi Reitmaier, the executive director and CEO. …The interiors were notable for their ruggedness: filtered light, cracked terrazzo and those mushroom columns, like chunky stalactites, that break up the cavernous space.

MOCA Toronto’s other defining feature is its sense of civic purpose. The fourth and fifth floors include studios rented at below-market rates as well as a project space where emerging and mid-career artists will be commissioned for site-specific work. The ground floor, which Reitmaier calls the “front porch,” will always have a participatory art piece and will never cost money to enter.

…The new MOCA doesn’t have the wow factor you’ll find in other repurposed art institutions, such as Herzog & de Meuron’s recent Tate Modern extension in London or the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, a grain silo transformed into a kind of steam-punk apiary by eccentric British designer Thomas Heatherwick. But MOCA Toronto doesn’t need wow. The city is desperate not for bold urban follies but for places to display art, particularly the kind that is too new for legacy institutions and too unconventional for commercial galleries. The project succeeds because it is both sensitive to the region’s history and responsive to its needs. It is a museum for Toronto, not Instagram.

From the January-February 2019 issue of Azure Magazine: