Frank Gehry returns to the streets of his Canadian childhood

Frank Gehry, the architect whose Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain redefined architecture and sparked a surge in museum building in the late 1990s, recently returned to Toronto to celebrate the start of a new project.

Born and raised in Toronto, Mr. Gehry has had only one job in Canada, his lauded renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which opened in 2008 in the neighborhood where he grew up.

At 94, he’s notoriously uninterested in retirement, and he came to Toronto last month to witness what he intends to be another Canadian masterpiece: two condominium towers that will be his tallest project to date. One tower will be 84 stories tall; the other, 74.

The project, known as Forma, will be located near Roy Thomson Hall, the current home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, on the streets Gehry walked in his youth, when the area was dominated by railway lines and warehouses.

It began as a collaboration between Mr. Gehry and David Mirvish, the owner of the theater whom Mr. Gehry knew from Mr. Mirvish’s days as a private gallery owner. The original plan, unveiled a decade ago, called for three towers of more than 80 stories each, but it was scaled back after backlash from the public and some politicians. The final design retains, rather than tearing down, the Princess of Wales Theater and retains two of the four warehouses which would have been demolished on the first floor. Mr. Mirvish has also sold the project to a consortium of developers.

After Mr. Gehry posed for many photos of the revolutionary, I met him in an office used by developers. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you still feel some connection to the streets around here?

As a child I delivered telephone directories in King Street; I pulled a small wagon. My grandfather’s hardware store was on Fleet Street West. And I used to go from 15 Beverley Street, where my grandmother lived, to the center to see movies and stuff. So this neighborhood was part of my early life.

So I have feelings for the neighborhood, but not how it turned out.

What has become of your old neighborhood?

Much turned out to be the same old as everywhere. They build a tower and there is not much talk of inheritance or relationship; it’s just clunk! And it’s up.

The buildings in most cities around the world are pretty bad. I’m not just blaming Canada.

Was remodeling your childhood neighborhood a particularly difficult project?

Incredible, more or less, that we are doing this. It came after a lot of talking, a lot of work, a lot of time. But these things happen over time.

The city bureaucracy, the planning department, have always been supportive from day one. But they had a lot of comments, they wanted this and that. I hosted them because they knew the city better than me.

A lot of work has been done. It’s like a painting. So the glass is offset in places to bring the light in a certain way and separate that surface from the rest of the building. Much care has been taken in the visual organization. It will become apparent over the years. You’ll see him and say, Oh, that’s what he was doing.

After two projects in your old neighborhood, is there anything else you would like to do there?

I grew up with classical music here at Massey Hall when Sir Ernest Macmillan was the conductor. He rode his bike through Grange Park and I rode through that park to Bloor Collegiate. He stopped by one day and started talking to me. I said, “Well, I was at your concert last night,” which shook him.

Unfortunately, Roy Thomson Hall the acoustics are not the best. But I still really like classical music and would love to help fix that. Nobody asked me, but I’m ready to.

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Born in Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen studied in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has been writing about Canada for the New York Times for twenty years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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