Crystal scatters no light
LISA ROCHON Saturday, June 2 2007
It's hard, aggressive and in your face. It cantilevers dangerously over the street, shifting the ground from under our feet. Do not expect shelter from the $135-million Michael Lee-Chin crystalline addition to Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum by Daniel Libeskind. Expect the exaltation of one architect, one man, one individual. Expect the stuff of Libeskind: an exile, a brilliant thinker, a marketer with a silver tongue.
Come into this person's life, see their triumphs, feel their sorrow — such is the nature of the prurient and morbid explorations of the 21st-century individual. Oprah, Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, they cannot begin to satisfy our ambition to know, our desire to be exposed. This is my space. Read my Facebook. Here we go again with the exaltation of the individual, except this time a guy decides to assault the street with his architecture.
Okay, everybody: Let's try to understand it.
First of all, a city as large and complex as Toronto has room for this kind of audacious experiment. There is architectural delirium at the reinvented ROM. And ecstasy, too.
The Stair of Wonders is a disarming composition of folded planes best appreciated when viewed from below, looking up several storeys through its core.
For this, ROM CEO William Thorsell, a passionate defender of architecture and public space who insisted that something fantastic occur in an ancillary circulation space, can be thanked as much as Libeskind, designer of the entire museum expansion in a joint venture with Bregman + Hamann Architects of Toronto. Also because of Thorsell, the public square on Bloor Street has been cleared of the city's usual portfolio of junk. Now minimalist lighting standards by Montreal's Éclairage Public will eventually grace the front of the museum. The Crystal Five (C5) restaurant, produced by local hipsters II X IV Design Associates within the penthouse of Libeskind's sharply angled envelope, offers an exhilarating station from which to view Toronto's magnificence as well as its sophomoric disorder. In the future, another of Thorsell's laudable ambitions — green roofs — will be added to the ROM's new topography.
Mostly, though, the new ROM rages at the world. This rage I cannot pretend to understand. But, it surely has something to do with losing 85 of your relatives during the Holocaust, of playing the accordion not the piano because of what the neighbours in Lodz, Poland, might say, of scribbling mad, inspired drawings in relative isolation at Michigan's Cranbrook Academy of Art, of only knowing the pleasure of building at the age of 52. Libeskind speaks often of all of this. His architecture is his Facebook.
You already know how the building bullies its way past the genteel east and west wings built in the early 20th century when craft, scale and permanence were pre-eminent in the minds of client and architect.
Whereas the 1912-14 museum by Darling & Pearson responded to the delights of neighbouring Philosopher's Walk with a tapestry of buff brick corbels and arched windows, Libeskind offers the angled face of the most desolate outcrop and matches the dog's breakfast aesthetic of commerce across Bloor with an exterior cladding of grey, anodized aluminum. Thorsell tells me the tone of the grey was chosen for its slightly warm hue, but all I can see is the colour of something dissonant, the colour, say, of Elektra's humiliation in Richard Strauss's opera.
There is more angst on the inside where windows cut like jagged scars across gallery walls, where steel grating makes for an uneasy, noisy floor on the many catwalks. The main lobby is an oppressive gesture, made especially heavy-handed by a ski slope of uneven drywall. There are mean views through the courtyard to the historic brick elevation and the access to the Samuel Hall/Currelly Gallery, restored as part of the $240-million in construction costs spent on Renaissance ROM.
The Royal Ontario Museum, like many museums of civilization around the globe, offers collections dedicated to the great artistic triumphs of the world as well as the evolutionary complexity of nature. So, why does it feel as though we've landed in the Inferno or possibly the Purgatorio of Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy? How strange to gather up friends or family to see the bats or the art-deco furniture at the beloved ROM, or the moody seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose work is currently on exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Culture on the fourth floor of the Crystal, and to be thrust into an aesthetic defined by a lack of decorative grace or warmth, where walls are always painted white and there's poured epoxy on the floors because terrazzo was too expensive. What did we do wrong? Unpaid parking tickets? Not enough organic greens in today's lunch? The wrecking of the environment? War? It's hard to know why we're treated to exposed screw heads on thin drywall.
Had it been clad in glass with the cacophony of steel beams exposed to the public, the museum would clearly represent an astonishing triumph. (Vanbots Construction managed the overall construction, with Halsall as the structural engineer and Walters Inc. of Hamilton performing the ironwork installation.) Approximately 3,000 steel members set at wide and subtle angles comprise the difficult structure of the Lee-Chin Crystal. But glass is an expensive and unreliable cladding to use as a roof in any Canadian city. And steel beams are not absolutely fire-resistant. None of this was fully appreciated when Libeskind submitted 11 drawings on ROM napkins of a glass, crystalline addition for the invited design competition. The ROM considered painting the beams in tumescent paint (which swells slightly to form a layer of insulation), says Thorsell, during our luxurious tour of the new museum this week. But the cost was prohibitive. Instead, the spray-on fire-proofing material is so thick and pasty as to render the beams unrecognizable.
That's why the decision was made to cover up the greatest engineering feat this country has seen in the last 30 years. It's an unfortunate lie.
With Libeskind, the building is the most important artifact. He first rendered this idea in his remarkable and deeply troubling Jewish Museum Berlin (1998-2001), which opened without any exhibitions. I can't think of another building that operates so profoundly as an open sore. The building's plan is a three-dimensional Star of David, scored like the ROM's with slotted windows. In Berlin, it was entirely appropriate that Libeskind used a circuitous route called die Leere, or "the emptiness." But, I'm not convinced that a language of loss is one that should be replicated from city to city, from London's Victoria & Albert Museum — that Libeskind project of jagged forms was cancelled in 2004 after much public outcry — to the Denver Art Gallery to Toronto.
At the ROM, the Spirit House is an ill-fated attempt to impose "the emptiness" of the Jewish Museum in Berlin within this museum. Perhaps when the lights are dimmed, it will force some introspection on all of us, but when I visited the Spirit House — a vertical space of gallery-linking bridges that extends from the top to the bottom of the Crystal — it seemed like a jangly, self-conscious void.
The complexity of the Crystal's construction has delayed the project by 18 months from the original projection. Today, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal opens with exhibitions in the below-grade Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall and in the new Institute for Contemporary Culture. The five other new galleries contained within the Crystal are minus exhibitions. But the museum as Libeskind's personal playhouse continues to amaze. A new chandelier designed by Libeskind and embedded with Swarovski crystals is to be installed over the monumental staircase leading to the upper restaurant. The only objects on display within the core of the Crystal are stainless-steel split-cuboid chairs designed by Libeskind and made by the Toronto-based furniture manufacturer Nienkamper. You'll find them on the ground floor at the base of the Spirit House and, naturally, in the new ROM Museum Store.
Let's see now. About 12 years after it was built, the Art Gallery of Ontario's addition by Barton Myers with Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (1992) was removed in order to make way for the current iteration designed by Frank Gehry. In 2003, the Terrace Gallery addition to the ROM by Moffat Kinoshita with Mathers & Haldenby (1978-83) was demolished just 20 years after its construction. Before the ironworkers set to work on the site, the courtyard, emptied of all architectural pretension, was a beautiful void.
Given the money, the determination and the generosity of the private sector in Toronto, the big institutions in this town will continue to be the subject of dramatic reconfigurations every two or three decades. That's why style exists — so that it can be sneered at from a safe distance and then reworked according to the latest fashion.
In another while, I imagine something very different for the ROM: the anodized aluminum and drywall ripped clean from its steel structure, the public blissfully liberated with every whack at the tin pinata. Decades from now, with 100,000 people annually migrating to the Toronto region, I suspect public space will finally be valued as a precious commodity. Desperate to reclaim that perfect quadrangle between the original east and west wings of the museum, the ROM will have expanded several storeys underground. It won't be that difficult to take down the Libeskind addition; its foundation is completely separate from the historic one and its walls barely touch the originals. What I see are hanging gardens draped over the raw steel beams. Natural light flooding the underground galleries. A Babylon for the 21st century.
Watch for this in the future, when the personal angst of an architect will be less indulged.