By Linda Dawn Hammond
What began in 2001 as a simple sketch on a napkin, doodled by a visiting architect, Daniel Libeskind,
while attending a wedding at the ROM, has now manifested into a brave and iconic building, which
will help define Toronto as a city willing to take risks in the realm of extreme imagination. The
Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, in completion, resembles nothing less than a crystalline meteorite, which
has plummeted from space to land on that venerable old building, known to Torontonians as the
Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).
In reality, the Crystal is comprised of 5 interlocking yet freestanding structures, prismatic in form.
They are attached to the original, adjoining heritage buildings by means of buffer insulation, which
allow them to settle and move according to the dictates of their respective materials. Nevertheless, it
appears as though the new addition has literally consumed portions of the older, more decorative
buildings. The unapologetic clash of styles has disturbed a number of people, who lament what they
view as an assault on the integrity of one of Toronto’s few remaining heritage buildings.
Others, who watched appalled as the skeletal form of the Crystal emerged from its foundations, are
now altering their opinions. As the project nears completion, observers are beginning to recognize it
as something akin to the architect’s original vision, that of a crystal, inspired by the ROM’s own
collection of gems and minerals. If one chooses this interpretation, then the original buildings can
represent the rock from which the crystal emerges and reveals itself. A shift in perspective, and the
relationship between old and new can be viewed in a nurturing light, as “in the arms of this old
building”, as William Thursell, the ROM’s director and CEO, chose to describe it during a recent press
Before we bemoan any cultural losses, it is important to recall what The Crystal actually replaced- a
series of concrete terraces, a relatively recent 1984 addition. In fact, a Modernist structure, which in
no way complimented the “original” museum buildings. Not even a Governor General's Award in
Architecture could save the The Queen Elizabeth II Terrace Galleries from eventual destruction. This
process of elimination is nothing new for the ROM, whose first major expansion in 1933 resulted in
the demolition of a Victorian mansion, the Argyle House.
The ROM is, in truth, not one but a collection of already disparate structures, the oldest of which
dates back to 1912. Combined, they reflect a combination of architectural styles that include Neo-
Romanesque, neo-Byzantine, Gothic Revival and Art Deco. With the addition of the Crystal, one can
now add “deconstructivist” to an already confusing medley. Understandably, apart from art
historians, most people have trouble distinguishing between the overlapping influences. In the end,
it’s all reduced to “old” vs. “new” architecture, and one’s personal bias.
The recent renovations have in fact uncovered sections of the original buildings, hitherto lost behind
unfortunate drywall “improvements” of the past. They provide intriguing points of reference as one
travels through the Crystal- some revealed as triangular cut-outs, or slivers, of original brick and
stone peeking through the new walls, others offering complete sections, such as the majestic interior
wall now revealed in the
Hyacinth Gloria Chen Crystal Court. The latter, named after the lead donor’s mother, has been
transformed into an imposing, four storey, enclosed courtyard. At one end looms a ghostlike and
rather funereal monolith, bearing equally the names of each donor to the renovation project,
regardless of their amount contributed. Names become illuminated as a visitor’s hand passes over
its surface. A dinosaur’s skeleton maintains watch through an upper window.
Michael Lee-Chin is the project’s first major donor, whose initial $30 million gift kick-started the
$270 million project. He admitted during a press conference held prior to the opening, that he too
had been, ”most reticent,” when first seeing the design, but, “having read about Daniel, he gave me
confidence.” Lee-Chin, a self-described, “poor boy from Jamaica,” is himself a man who inspires
confidence in others. As a youth he moved to Canada to study engineering, entered finance and
became a billionaire. There have been criticisms that his philanthropy could be better served in the
poorer areas of Toronto, which are lacking even basic resources. Lee-Chin’s intention is that
immigrants will recognize a reflection of themselves in the name attached to such an illustrious
building, and then perhaps learn of the success story behind it. For them, it may well provide a
message of hope, that their dreams of prosperity can likewise be fulfilled.
Critics of the project have asserted that the building is not a unique design. There are those who
draw comparisons between the Lee-Chin Crystal and that of the Jewish Museum in Berlin (1999), with
some justification. But after all, the same architect did conceive both projects, and it should be
accepted that the mark of a true auteur is a definable and recognizable style. Daniel Libeskind’s
architectural designs reflect an intellectual rigour, philosophical depth and commitment to the
unexpected, rare to his field. A visit to his website confirms that a quick dismissal of the new ROM
addition, as something “flashy” or shallow, is a severe underestimation of the man and what he is
trying to achieve. In addition to his numerous awards and honourary doctorates, Libeskind received
the Hiroshima Art Prize in 2001, in recognition of his work to promote understanding and peace. He
remains the only architect to have ever been accorded the honour. The Crystal itself has already
begun to garner awards- on May 16th the CICS presented it with a 2007 Award of Merit at the
Ontario Steel Design Awards. It was accepted by the project’s local architectural partner, Bregman
and Hamann architects, on behalf of Studio Daniel Libeskind and the ROM.
That said, certain key elements are common to the design of Toronto’s Crystal and Berlin’s Jewish
Museum – the narrow slit windows criss-crossing the structure at odd angles, the concrete bridges
adjoining rooms, matrixes, jagged stairways and disorienting perspectives. Some might even classify
the Crystal’s “Spirit House,” as a “void,” reminiscent of the five “voids” in the Berlin structure.
According to a Libeskind statement made in 1999, a “Void” is defined as, “not really a museum
space.” The “voids” in Libeskind’s Berlin structure represent loss of, “that which can never be
exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin History”. They emphasize physical discomfort, in that they
are unheated, lack air conditioning and offer little light.
By contrast, Toronto’s “Spirit House”, located on level 1, intends to provide a sanctuary of repose in
the heart of the structure, to inspire contemplation and ideas. Libeskind specially designed the 13
“Spirit House” chairs, which are made entirely out of steel. Crystalline in shape, they offer 5 positions
in which one can recline, while gazing up at the dizzying 5 points convergence formed by the
bridges which link the East and West galleries above. The void. Peering down through the grate
below one’s feet, the darkened form of the Crystal’s base plunges 32 feet below. Another void. Be
warned that the grates also provide an opportunity for trapping women’s high heels. (Not
encouraged footwear in the building)
In mid June a permanent soundscape designed by composer John Oswald, entitled, “A Time to Hear
for Here,” will be installed, filling the “Spirit House” with pre-recorded algorithms involving scripted
as well as random sounds. For example, there will be hourly sound markers, when one might
recognize the firing of the noon gun in St.John’s, Newfoundland. In Toronto’s time zone, this will
sound off at 10:30 AM. Interspersed between will be sounds emanating from various sources, chosen
at random by a computer and therefore unlikely to be heard again in the same combination.
On opening day, the “Spirit House” was crammed with tourists playing musical chairs, its natural
soundscape filled with human squeals and the whirr of digital devices. Perhaps when the novelty
wears off, the space can get down to business.
The Hyacinth Gloria Chen Crystal Court has already played host to a number of elegant social affairs,
including the official opening gala dinner, “The Singular Event”, held on June 1st, followed by the “Big
Bang Party.” Both were well attended by the elite of Canadian moneyed society, which did little to
dispel the notion that the ROM has slipped on the Crystal slipper, seen that it fits, and run off to
marry the prince. Evidently leaving the remainder of us serfs to languish beyond the palace gates,
peering greedily at the festivities within.
To be fair, a free public street party, entitled, “A World of Possibilities”, was held on Bloor Street the
following evening, timed to coincide with the citywide Luminata festival. There were comedians,
musicians and a light show which illuminated the new building, At midnight the doors were thrown
open, and a full on open house ensued. This allowed the public the guilty pleasure of all-night
roaming privileges through the vast, ”naked” interior of the Crystal, and explore the sometimes
creepy museum displays of the original buildings.
The following day the Architectural Preview commenced, holding regular hours until June 11th, when
the galleries within the Lee-Chin Crystal were closed for installation.
Line-ups stretched far down Bloor Street and some locals expressed surprise to learn that the
attraction was the ROM itself. Once inside, visitors actually came to play, which was an unusual sight
in the museum. They took great delight in leaning against the oddly sloping walls, peering through
crevices, experiencing the vertigo of the windows that jut out over Bloor Street and documenting
their every move with ubiquitous digital cameras in hand. Where the new structure dissected the old,
tourists stood behind the gaps, giggling as they photographed each other’s now “headless” bodies.
Museum guards seemed overwhelmed at the response, as if everyone in a library had suddenly
begun to sing in unison. One guard tried to reprimand Luke Uczciwek for performing yoga moves in
the window, chiding, “Is this how you behave in a museum,” while threatening to expel him. But Luke
merely laughed in response and made his way to a higher level. There was an air of uniform hysteric
Within the Crystal’s walls, deep gashes cut at odd angles penetrating the outer structure, enabling
shards of light to enter, creating random and ever shifting patterns on the walls and displays, much
like a crystal placed in a window refracts light. By closing time, the white walls and windows were
smudged with handprints, and dusty trails where bodies had slid down walls. Like the fossils in the
current Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibit, “History of History,” the humans were unintentionally leaving
imprints to mark their passing.
The ROM has long seemed a musty old place, beloved, but more as a repository of nostalgic
memories- of noisy school trips, dinosaurs, mummies, bat caves and decaying totem poles. This
renovation is destined to change all that, and blow a great wave of fresh air and light into an
important institution. The intrigue its new exterior generates will entice adults into the ROM, if only
to satiate a desire to discover what nature of interior it can possibly contain. Once inside, the new
exhibits, if inspired, will fulfil their curiosity and draw them back. “The Stair of Wonders” will exist to
provide the necessary whimsical element, dinosaurs will loom in their new habitat, now visible to the
busy street below, and dioramas will be made cool again by contemporary conceptual artists out to
confuse us in their complexity. Not to mention that the “bat cave” will remain as always, the best
reputed “make-out“ spot in Toronto, at least in the dimming memories of countless school kids, now
Leaving, I watched a father stride purposefully towards the subway, four children of various ages
trailing behind. He was pumped with energy, telling them excitedly, ‘This building is going to stand
forever! And you will be able to tell your kids someday that you were there- the day it opened! You
were there! I was there with my father the day the Sky Dome opened, and I will always remember it.”
He was desperately trying to impress the sanctity of the moment on them, but they only looked
embarrassed and somewhat sceptical.
The Sky Dome? Nobody calls it that anymore. And what is this “Forever”? There is no forever, except
for Sugimoto’s fossils perhaps. But I’ll admit, this is one building you can’t easily slice down to a
mere façade at some later date- it’s insides are as vital to its stability as its outer surface, and
besides, it contains no right angles!
- Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History, June 2 - August 19, 2007.
- Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World, June 2 - August 12, 2007
- The Black Sapphire of Queensland, June 2 - December 2, 2007
New galleries opening throughout 2007/08 include: Jim and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of
Dinosaurs, Gallery of Africa, Americas and Asia-Pacific, Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles and
Costume, Sir Christopher Ondaatje South Asian Gallery,
Regular admission prices: Adults $20., students and seniors $17., Children $14., children 4 and
under admitted free.
Special Friday admission prices: Only between the hours 4:30-9:30 PM: Adults, Students (w.ID
Seniors $5., Children $2., Children 4 and under admitted Free.
FREE Admission to all, Sat. through Thurs, from 4:30 to 6 pm.
Prices above now include entry to all special exhibitions!