Frank Gehry

Frank Gehry and David Mirvish to transform King West

Get ready for some massive change on King Street. Formally announced earlier this morning via a letter from David Mirvish, plans are in place to have Frank Gehry transform a significant stretch of King West between the Royal Alex Theatre and John Street. The project will consist of three residential towers perched atop podiums that will house a new campus for OCAD University and a 60,000 square foot gallery for the Mirvish family art collection. Big stuff, indeed.

In pursuing such a large-scale project — one that's as exciting as it is ambitious — Mirvish has decided to, as he says, "remove" the Princess of Wales Theatre, which was built in 1993. That's a major casualty of these plans, but when you consider what's on offer and what it means for Toronto architecturally, it's far easier to reconcile the loss of such a facility.

"If there were a way of completing this project without removing the Princess of Wales Theatre, we would have followed it," Mirvish explained in a letter distributed to media this morning. "But after careful consideration and many different plans, I decided not giving Gehry a full canvas on which to work would have meant compromises that would have lessened the power of the project."

Gehry never got free reign on the AGO transformation mostly on account of budgetary constraints, so it'll be fascinating to see what he can do this time around. If the early renderings are any indication, the project will be as bold as Toronto architecture tends to get. Even if Gehry's work isn't to everyone's taste, one imagines that this stretch of street will become an iconic bit of Toronto should all the pieces fall into place.

What do you think? Is this exciting news for Toronto? Is the loss of Princess of Wales theatre devastating or just collateral damage you can live with? Here's Mirvish's own thoughts about the project, which are composed in letter form.

Letter from David Mirvish

Dear Friends in the Media,

Tomorrow I will announce an important new project that will build on the legacy that my father began when he purchased and restored the Royal Alexandra Theatre five decades ago. As a valued member of the media, I am very proud to share these plans with you, not in the form of the traditional media release but as a letter, because this project is of a special personal interest to me and I would like to treat it differently.

In 1963, King Street West was a wasteland of derelict industrial buildings and underused railway yards. In the middle of this was the beaux-arts jewel that is the Royal Alex. The first thing my father did was to try and create a hospitable neighbourhood for the theatre. He bought many of the warehouses and converted them into restaurants, which he felt complemented the theatregoing experience.

That was the beginning of what has now become the preeminent arts and cultural neighbourhood in the country.

The Royal Alex is still thriving, still the Grande Dame of the area's bustling activity. Our other buildings, the former warehouses and foundries to the west of the theatre, are now offices and businesses. The neighbourhood has grown up, just as Toronto has; and I believe after almost 50 years of custodianship of these two blocks of urban space, now is the time to take a bold step into the future while preserving the flavour and strengths of our heritage.

Towards this end I am collaborating with the world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, who grew up in this neighbourhood and whose only other project in his hometown is the beautiful redesign of the Art Gallery of Ontario (2008).

Our vision is a project that will encompass three distinct and remarkable residential towers that will be unlike anything that has been built in Toronto. They will be grounded by stepped podiums that will house a large, new public gallery called the Mirvish Collection, a new campus for the OCAD University, and planted terraces that will create a green silhouette overlooking King Street.

The design will create a new profile for the arts and entertainment district at the streetscape and in the skyline, add significantly to the John Street Cultural Corridor, and provide new and enhanced public spaces. The conceptual design, which will continue to evolve, will create a humane and habitable streetscape with wide sidewalks, on which Canada's Walk of Fame will be preserved and maintained.

The three iconic residential towers, each with a different form, façade and use of materials, will be: a slender and highly articulated tower beside the Royal Alex; and on the block bordered by King, Pearl, Ed Mirvish Way and John Street, a stacked, slatted L-shaped tower and a translucent tri-winged tower. These towers are so distinct, so striking, that I think of them as sculptures by one of the greatest artists of his generation.

The new 60,000-square-foot Mirvish Collection gallery will be a destination for viewing contemporary abstract art. The Mirvish Collection, which my wife and I have built over 50 years, comprises works by leading artists, including Jack Bush, Anthony Caro, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, David Smith and Frank Stella. The nonprofit Mirvish Collection will be free, open to the public and will present artist-focused exhibitions. The gallery will also be available to other institutions and to travelling art shows.

This project will not happen immediately. It will be completed in phases. The first phase will be the warehouse building that currently stands at King Street and Ed Mirvish Way. The second and third phases will be the group of buildings on the block bordered by King, Pearl, Ed Mirvish Way and John Street. We anticipate it will be three to seven years before the entire project is completed.

In order to fulfill this vision, all the buildings to the west of the Royal Alex will be replaced with Gehry's new architecture. This will include the removal of the Princess of Wales Theatre, which I built and opened in 1993 and which was originally intended as a temporary facility to house Miss Saigon and other large-scale shows.

If there were a way of completing this project without removing the Princess of Wales Theatre, we would have followed it. But after careful consideration and many different plans, I decided not giving Gehry a full canvas on which to work would have meant compromises that would have lessened the power of the project.

This wasn't an easy decision. It has always been my philosophic position that one should never tear down a theatre, even if it isn't fully operational, because a community that is healthy and growing will eventually find its way to use the theatre. I lavished an enormous amount of energy, creativity and money to build the Princess of Wales Theatre. It is a beautiful facility of which I am very proud, but it happens to be situated in the middle of the new project's path.

The artwork by Frank Stella that was created specifically for the Princess of Wales Theatre will be documented and much of it saved. Stella will also work with Gehry to find ways to incorporate new artwork in this new project.

The Princess of Wales Theatre will not be forgotten. It will be memorialized in the new project, as will Lady Diana, the Princess of Wales, herself, who graciously allowed us to name the theatre in her honour while she was still alive.

Please be assured that the Mirvish family will continue to produce and present as many, if not more, theatrical offerings. In fact, as you may know, we have just expanded our activities by recently launching the Off-Mirvish Series, which will present the best of contemporary plays.

Although we may be losing the Princess of Wales Theatre, we have three other excellent facilities - the Royal Alex, the Ed Mirvish Theatre and the Panasonic Theatre - in which to entertain and enrich cultural life. And, as we have done in the past, we can also hire other facilities, as needed, such as the splendid Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre and the Sony Centre. Finally, if we find we need yet another facility, I will be prepared to build a new theatre. I have done that before and I will be willing to do it again. We are as dedicated to the performing arts as we have ever been, perhaps even more so now...

...Thank you for your continued support as we embark on this new project, which I am confident, will enhance our city's cultural life.


David Mirvish

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