Last weekend, David Mirvish announced huge plans for a new art gallery, OCAD facility, and, yes, condo complex along King West, near John Street. The project is being designed by Frank Gehry and will involve the destruction of the Princess of Wales Theatre. Not surprisingly, Mirvish’s foray into city building is being met with mixed reactions. We caught up with him at his King Street offices.
There seems to be a lot of debate about whether the Princess of Wales Theatre is yours to take away, even though you own it. Is that frustrating?
People are nostalgic, I understand that. There are movie houses that I went to as a kid. I remember my first date with a little blond girl, being 14 and holding hands. The thing is that theatre is about sharing an experience and holding on to what that meant to you. That’s why we don’t film the shows—I want people to remember a performance and have it grow in their memory over time.
I remember the helicopter coming through the roof in Miss Saigon.
Exactly, and that’s the important thing. If I opened the theatre up without a show and charged 10 dollars just to go inside and see the building, I think I’d have trouble getting 10 people a day.
I think you might have trouble getting 10 people who would pay a buck.
Probably. We have an overabundance of large-theatre seating now, so what else can I do with it? The Princess of Wales is only 19 years old. It’s not historic. If a theatre’s doors aren’t open, it’s not contributing to the neighbourhood. I want to adapt like my father did. When he opened his restaurant, he was selling 6,000 roast beef dinners on a Saturday night, but when he stopped selling 6,000 roast beef dinners, he stopped having a restaurant.
When you introduced this project over the weekend, you said, “I am not building condominiums, I am building three sculptures for people to live in.”
As far as I’m concerned, I’m collecting three more works.
Okay, but isn’t that a bit po-tay-to/po-tah-to? They’re still condos.
Google the Casa Milà in Barcelona or any other structure that people live in that has been the subject of controversy at the start. Torontonians have a way of being timid; I get that sometimes, when you poke your head up from underground, the natural inclination is to hit that groundhog on the head. But why can’t we have buildings that are interesting and exciting to live in? Building condos doesn’t need to be just about glass and steel.
Could the great Frank Gehry not figure out a way to include the old theatre into the new design?
That’s where we started. He came back with some great ideas, but it was like asking an artist to paint with just one hand.
He has a reputation for being a bit of a grump. You’re laughing, so you must know what I’m talking about.
I think he’s reached the point where he can reject jobs, so maybe he’s just choosy. He needs to make good use of his time. He wants to do great things and deal with people who will offer him that leeway.
You mentioned earlier that he’s 83 and you’re 68. Did you consult with anyone who wasn’t alive during the Diefenbaker administration on this project?
We have teams of people, probably 25 different groups, who’ve been consulting on everything from what’s selling in the market to what sort of amenities are necessary and desirable. [Questions like] do we really need a beach volleyball court or should we concentrate on a swimming pool?
Do you need a beach volleyball court?
I don’t know if we need it, but I’d like it. It’s in the drawings right now. We want to appeal to the young people who live downtown, so we have lots of single units and we will focus on making those affordable. We’re also hoping that if two of these single people meet in an elevator and decide that they want to be together forever, there will be ways to accommodate a growing family.
So it’s going to be the David Mirvish love shack?
That’s right! That’s what we’re building.
One of the big selling points of the new development is that it will become an art gallery for your private collection.
Until now, I only show it to about 400 people a year, and that’s by appointment only.
Can you give me a ballpark figure in terms of what that is worth?
I really have no idea.
If there was a fire and you could only save one piece, what would it be?
Well, it would have to be small. I’d have to be able to carry it out.
How long is it going to be before we see this project fully realized?
I was told today about 10 years. Five years before the first condo tower is up. We are just in the very early stages at this point. I did ask an astrologer whether it would take more than a year and a half to get through City Hall.
What did the Lord of the Rings disaster teach you about going big?
Don’t do Lord of the Rings again!
I was responding to a community need. We had just had SARS and if we didn’t go big, we wouldn’t be able to wipe out that memory, and we wouldn’t be able to put Toronto back on the theatre map. We took risks and did the very best we could, but we didn’t have complete control. Yes, we’re going big here, too, but at least this is Frank and me fulfilling our own dreams and not somebody else’s.
Rothko or Pollock?
Queen West or Queen East?
Artwork you would most like to own?
Bunch of Asparagus by Manet.
AGO or ROM?
One word to describe your dad?
Daily wake-up time?
Obama or Romney?