ROM’s Crystal mingles heart, mind

  • June 8, 2007
Daniel Libeskind’s $135-million addition to the Royal Ontario Museum , which opened earlier this month at the corner of University Avenue and Bloor Street West, is the most controversial architectural project ever to go up in Toronto. It has set critic against critic, sharply divided the architectural community and provoked some praise and a great deal of condemnation from citizens.
Take a look at the building, if you want to understand where this contentious energy is coming from.

Named after a Burlington billionaire who pledged $30 million toward its completion, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal seems to explode from the north side of the ROM’s old, genteel buildings. Its huge, aluminum-clad volumes tilt into each other like icebergs and ice floes colliding in an Arctic storm. Instead of being let in through conventional windows, light enters the structure through irregular gashes ripped into the facade. The galleries inside are framed by leaning walls and plunging precipices. Unlike the museum spaces most of us are accustomed to — regular, unsurprising, retiring — the interior areas of the Crystal restlessly vary from low and mysterious to soaring and cathedral-like.

{sidebar id=2}It’s impossible simply to “like” a building this eccentric and aggressive. The Crystal is meant by its architect to evoke strong, visceral emotions in its visitors, and it does so.

Typical of such reactions, though more interesting than most, is that of art critic Richard Rhodes, an old friend of mine, who exclaimed during a press preview: “It’s the culture of hypercapitalism — full of drama and energy and momentum, yet at the same time oppressive and domineering and claustrophobic. Psychically, it’s just wrong.”

Rhodes’ criticism deserves to be taken seriously. Contemporary culture is indeed full of sound and fury — thrills, distractions, excitements — often signifying nothing. Any architecture that merely expresses the hectic promiscuity of consumerism must be resisted as a danger to urban integrity and livability.

Libeskind’s building can be worrying in this regard. Like Rhodes, I am troubled by the possibility that the ROM’s treasures, once they are installed, will be overwhelmed by the overbearing, in-your-face structures that surround them. (Most of the galleries were still empty at the time of the opening.)

I am also bothered by the dispiriting combination of the architect’s highly theatrical effects and a certain cheapness in the actual construction. The glittering glass skin featured in early renderings of Libeskind’s design, for instance, has been replaced by less expensive, and distinctly less attractive, metal cladding in the final version.

But the capitalist culture of our time is not merely the sum of its fads, obsessions and consumer fantasies. It is also, occasionally, the site of considerable freedom, creativity and high critical imagination — traits that, in my view, are forcefully expressed in the Crystal, and that should be celebrated.

Though he often comes across as show-bizzy and sentimental in public settings — he is his own worst enemy in this respect — Libeskind brings to his work a rigorously intelligent approach honed as an artist, theorist and writer during many years in the architectural wilderness. He did not finish his first real building — the astonishing Jewish Museum in Berlin — until he was in his 50s. He is now 60, but only just getting started in the actual building business. However well or badly the ROM’s artefacts will fare in them — this very much remains to be seen — his architectural spaces are always remarkable and ingenious, and sometimes brilliant.

Yet esthetic effect is only part of the Libeskind equation. There is also the galvanizing impact of his architecture on cities.

By setting up a bold contrast, the Crystal experiment makes run-of-the-mill Toronto architecture seem as timid and mediocre as so much of it really is. The building also sets a new high standard for flair and audacity in Toronto. Our best local architects are masters of the small gesture and the repair of tattered urban fabric, and we value them for their many contributions to the city. But there is also a role in Toronto for feats of daring and complex architectural intelligence, and one good example of such qualities is surely Libeskind’s Crystal.

If we would probably not want one on every street corner, the important and historic intersection of University Avenue and Bloor Street West is one place where a flamboyant gesture that lifts the mind and heart might just work.

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