MOCA moves into an ugly-beautiful building that changed a Toronto neighbourhood
03 May 2019

In modelling, the term for someone who possesses unconventional, rough, or odd features is “ugly beautiful.” … If there were some sort of organization for ugly-beautiful buildings, 158 Sterling Rd., built by the Northern Aluminum Company in 1919-20, would surely be a star. …[W]hat the building lacks in refinement, it more than makes up with its commanding height of 10 storeys (like many fashion models) in what was, a century ago, a low-rise, railway-fed industrial zone in the Brockton Village neighbourhood of Toronto. So tall, it quickly became a landmark for locals since, for decades, it was the only such edifice for kilometres.

…The one thing 158 Sterling Rd. never was, however, was an ornate, impressive office tower. Commanding from afar, yes, but a sidewalk examination reveals an unconventional, rough nature. To wit: The first two storeys are raw, pebble-encrusted, poured concrete; no effort was made to smooth, polish or make it seem to be anything other than what it is (and this, remember, was four decades before Brutalism made rough concrete fashionable).

Even above the decorative band between the second and third storeys, the infill between the exposed concrete pilasters doesn’t look to be made of hard, smooth, expensive brick, but rather what one might use to construct an outbuilding. The windows, which could’ve been as modern as aluminum by spanning from buff-coloured pilaster to pilaster and stretched from floor-to-ceiling, are instead odd, punched affairs that appear far too small for such a muscular composition.

…“We’re the architects, but it’s not about the architecture,” agrees Peter Clewes, principal of architectsAlliance, the firm that Castlepoint Numa charged with adapting the century-old building to MOCA’s needs. “As Toronto grows up and tries to become a more international, outwardly-looking city … this gallery is about [international] contemporary art, which I think shows a real cultural confidence that is very rare in this country.”

Perhaps that’s why Mr. Clewes and the heritage experts at ERA Architects allowed the building to live its next 100 years with warts and all. The slickness and almost ‘corporate’ showmanship that applies to the Art Gallery of Ontario doesn’t apply here; walk around MOCA – whether gazing at the artwork or the rough mushroom columns that hold up the ceiling – and it feels rather like one is on a backstage tour of a feisty off-Broadway theatre rather than a place where groundbreaking exhibitions will occur.

…But make no mistake, 158 Sterling has been cleaned up. A great deal. As juxtaposition to the wonky floors and pockmarked columns, there are smooth, creamy-white walls bursting with art. There is new HVAC overhead, snazzy office space for the MOCA team behind frosted glass, and an espresso-and-cookie-stand in the lobby that’s as smart looking as anything on Queen West (MOCA’s old location was on Queen West in an old textile factory). And interventions by architectsAlliance to extend the lobby space are not only clean and minimalist, the roofline mimics the old saw-tooth shaped roof of the one-storey portion of the building that had to come down.

It’s now a perfect place for showcasing challenging, unsettling work, such as the current sound/video installation Now (2015) by Chantal Akerman, full of fast-moving images and thundering war-like sounds, or the coming The Life of a Dead Tree by Mark Dion, which will see an entire ash tree, along with its inhabitants, assembled on the building’s third floor. An examination of the “ecosystems a dead tree continues to propagate” will be featured as well, says MOCA artistic director November Paynter.

“We felt that that was an important relationship to the building, the idea of bringing back life into this neighbourhood, and into a building that had been dormant for quite some time.”

As MOCA’s new home celebrates its centenary, there is so much life here now the building seems to pulsate with beauty, and, yes, with ugliness too ... just like life.

Published in The Globe and Mail online: