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2007 04 04
John Barber Slams Toronto’s New Decorated Sheds And Ducks

I'm the first to admit that one of the city's journalistic treasures is Globe and Mail columnist John Barber. Barber seems to have our household's zeitgeist in mind when he tackles the city's politics. That's why I was floored when last week he unleashed his most withering prose at the city's prominent pieces of architecture. For once, he got it wrong.

Under the headline, "If it walks like a duck . . ." Barber stepped onto the slippery-slope of architectural criticism taking an emperor has no clothes approach to first slam Gehry's AGO then Libeskind's ROM Crystal. Turns out that Barber equates the AGO's evolving southern profile to a WalMart store and the adjacent Sharp Centre for Design to a Kleenex box. Gehry, don't you know, is going for that "big box" look with efficient aisles to hock art.

After dispensing with the AGO and OCAD as so much cheap commercial merchandise, Barber moves his architecture critic inner child north to take on that other unusual new building, the ROM's Crystal. According to Barber, workers there were flummoxed by the appearance of a straight column and quickly moved to cover it with layers of material. The plans were unreadable argues Barber (of course, they weren't unreadable they were, however, complex).

I do have to credit Barber for his reference to Architect Robert Venturi's "Ducks and Sheds" description of architectural types. At least he did some research on the topic. Ducks, in Venturi's parlance, are those object buildings like, for example, Frank Lloyd Wright's spiraling Guggenheim Museum in New York. Their iconography dictates the form and structure of the architectural spaces within. Sheds are functional boxes with applied decoration -- think your average mall with its myriad of stores each with a different front to the same box and you have the idea. If you follow Barber's logic then the successful Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts is, after all, just a shed.

While Venturi and Co.s descriptors of architectural typologies were clever, they were mere tropes to provide insight into a much more nuanced understanding of architecture's role in the mid-twentieth century American landscape. Thankfully, architecture and architectural criticism have evolved exponentially since then. Don't blame Barber for being unaware of that.

The irony of Barber's words is that most people have become so accustomed to either duck or shed architecture as a by-product of the North American merchandise culture, that when they come across buildings that a clearly not cheap versions of those things they gasp at the shock of the difference confusing their reaction with dislike. After all, different is, in a xenophobic way, not to be trusted -- right?

Wrong. Toronto's new museum buildings are intended to make us aware of the city's polyvalent culture. They are complex and provocative. They demand attention. They are intentionally different from the context buildings that surround them. And they have succeeded in capturing the public's interest. Just today the Globe reports that some Italian-Canadians joined together as a group to contribute $10 million to the AGO. The gallery now has reached 87% of its fundraising goals. Not bad for a shed -- or was that a WalMart.

[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 04/04 at 11:50 AM

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