Crystallizing an Image

That anything is possible in architecture is an idea awakening in Toronto after a 20-year slumber. Not long ago, Daniel Libeskind’s design for growing two massive crystals as the Royal Ontario Museum’s new ordering foil would have been scorned and ultimately banished to the dusty archives along with so many other schemes for more advanced, complex architecture and urbanism dreamed up and promptly ignored in the city of Toronto.

In nature, crystals take thousands of years to construct. In Toronto, with Libeskind’s design for a $200 million redevelopment of the Royal Ontario Museum, the monumental crystals could be constructed in less than a decade. Official support for the project came earlier this spring when the ROM received $30 million from Ontario’s Superbuild initiative. Matching funds from the federal government are also expected. Phase One of the building is scheduled for completion in 2005–if the private sector contributes the balance of the budget.

Whereas North American capitalism once fed voraciously on product, it depends increasingly on the profitability–and imagibility–of culture. In the competitive global context, where cities battle each other for international attention, Toronto needs this kind of project, as does Ontario and the rest of Canada. If the architecture is surprising enough, people will come to the new ROM just to ogle the building. The Guggenheim in Bilbao has taught us that.

But there is much work still to be done. Libeskind’s crystal design is flawed for several reasons. It is almost a full endorsement of Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the “hypermarket of culture.” For instance, the winning design turns the museum away from the grand scale and civic program of Queen’s Park Crescent to favour the cramped consumer strip of Bloor Street. And its so-called crystalline addition–brutally, aggressively drawn–is many structures removed from the faceted, intricate and incremental logic of quartz or salt crystals.

Still, the design is rich with possibility. The skin of the building has the potential to do for glass what Frank Gehry has accomplished for stainless steel and titanium. If design and technology can merge perfectly, Libeskind could bring a quality of light–moonlight, campfires, the northern lights–that travels and reflects from one facet of the crystal to another and into much of the museum interior.

That kind of affecting magic could take shape in Toronto–but that will depend on whether Libeskind, his Toronto partners Bregman + Hamann and their platoon of consultants can invent a remarkable skin for the building. Next to the skin, the reordering and restoration of the museum’s interior seems elementary.

The ambition that Libeskind holds for the skin is to produce something that is utterly seamless. It has to shift its qualities from metal to glass. It needs to diffuse light, bringing south light through the crystal so that it might be reflected into the north lobby. Only when the skin is right can the qualities of nature’s crystals be evoked within the museum.

Libeskind’s exploration of skin began when he clad his Museum of the Jewish People in Berlin with zinc panels. For his Spiral addition to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, he turned to a traditional material of craft–ceramic tile–to clad his building. For the ROM, the architect wants to invent a new cladding: “It is metallic, it is translucent,” he said during our recent interview in Toronto. “We have to invent–we’ve already met with many experts. We are researching how to create a seamless system which can get the translation of space from opacity to translucency to transparency and also make it change without using expensive high-tech gadgetry–how to do it with materials themselves.”

The winning design maintains all three historic buildings of the museum: the west wing of the ROM with its projecting bays and Venetian Byzantine detailing (Darling and Pearson, 1912-14); the connecting centre block; and the east wing addition defined by its muscular presence along Queen’s Park Crescent (Chapman & Oxley, 1930-32). Like many of the other competition schemes, including designs by Rafael Violy, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Libeskind’s fellow finalists Bing Thom and Andrea Bruno, the main parti comes by way of an enormous roofscape that floats above and between the historic wings along the building’s north-south axis. Bruno’s scheme eliminated the centre block entirely while Thom’s manipulated it to favour a monumental roof that bucks like a tsunami the length of the museum, ultimately rising some 40 metres above traffic on the site’s north edge. Libeskind’s crystalline structure touches down along the commercial strip of Bloor Street to provide the new entrance to the museum. As defined by the museum’s director, William Thorsell, the Queen’s Park entrance to the ROM will be closed to the public and reconfigured to accommodate special events only.

Much of what drives the redevelopment of the ROM is the inefficiency of the current interior configuration, the result of an extensive addition and renovation by Moffat Kinoshita Architects in 1982. (The project won a Governor General’s Award for Architecture in 1986–a measure of how architectural and museological attitudes have changed since that time). The museum is easy to get lost in and, because of this, visitors rely on familiar routes through the institution rather than risk getting lost on their way to other exhibitions. It’s easy to lose all sense of direction as virtually all the windows on the eastern and western flanks are boarded up or disguised behind exhibition walls. Escalators cut into precious floor space, and the Weston Exhibition Hall, once elegantly announced with a stone relief of a wheat sheaf, stands unceremoniously behind a storage closet.

Libeskind begins the cleanup by removing the Terrace Gallery–one of the 1982 interventions–which looks like a building running away from a street. There are six new galleries contained within the new crystal structure–equally split between natural history and civilization–which are designated to occupy three storeys above Bloor Street. The blockbuster space, to accommodate large traveling exhibitions intended to draw big crowds, is directly below the main lobby. The scheme acknowledges the importance of educational outreach: from their current offices two levels below grade, the education facilities will be shifted to the main floor.

Libeskind has provided a decent civic gesture by returning the crucial east-west axis to the museum, effectively reconnecting the historic galleries on the east and west wings to each other through clear sightlines. A splintered tower of glass signals a new caf entrance from Philosophers’ Walk facing the University of Toronto campus and the Royal Conservatory of Music; there will be a family cafeteria at grade and a restaurant on the roof of the west wing. In response to the competition brief, a roof garden has been designed with views looking south over the city.

In the 1980s, Libeskind was best known for his beautifully provocative and minutely detailed pencil drawings–Chamber Works (1983) or City Edge, the winning design in the IBA City Edge Competition (1987), in which the Berlin Wall fragments and explodes, the city splintering into zones of democracy and tolerance. His competition-winning design for the Museum of the Jewish People in Berlin (1989-1996) was considered by some to be impossible to build, or at least too expensive: at 170 million DM the museum came in at twice the government allowance. But like Libeskind’s drawings, the Jewish Museum’s design, even at its inception, demonstrated extraordinary attention to a richly complex architectural narrative. Libeskind imagined much of the museum’s zig-zagged form by locating and then stitching together the addresses of Berlin’s community of intellectuals, Jews and non-Jews. Some 1,005 windows or fissures in the building’s wall represent the intersection of these addresses.

Many believe the Jewish Museum to be an autonomous building inscribed over part of the Kreuzberg section of Berlin
as an unfolding Star of David. In fact, the museum’s entrance is found within the old Berlin Municipal Museum, a Baroque building which Libeskind renovated for the project, and which he chose to link to the new museum by an underground passage. That restoration serves as an important primer for similar work at the ROM.

A language of space–how to occupy it, segregate it and travel through it–connects Libeskind’s projects. Whereas seven voids at the Museum of the Jewish People are used to represent loss and devastation, the vitrines at the ROM are designed to showcase the glorious gifts provided by the unfolding of civilization and nature–the Ming Tombs, for instance, or dinosaurs. Bing Thom had designed an oversized glass jam jar to contain and display one enormous dinosaur to one side of his proposed north mall, an example of overzealous imaging of historic artifacts. (It’s one strategy that Libeskind is unlikely to be tempted to emulate, as the ROM’s collection of dinosaurs does contain some large skeletons but consists mostly of fragments: skulls, for instance, or fossils imbedded in rock.)

Marketing gurus will tell us that we like to indulge our consumer desire for choice when we shop. Ergo, the coffee franchises–you know which ones–with their menus of moccacinos, frappucinos, chai tea with soy milk and will that be regular, skim or homogenized? It’s this fetishism of consumer choice that dominates the new main lobby at the ROM. Two staircases lead up to the Crystal galleries. There are also three elevators. Another staircase leads down to the blockbuster gallery. Could these kinds of architectural jolts be part of what it takes to attract the 200-television channel rave scene generation to the museum? It is, after all, the language favoured by Libeskind not only for the ROM, but for his interiors at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Denver Art Museum. And Libeskind himself says: “Very often museums don’t provide the conditions for making it accessible to young people. Museums can’t be cut out for one kind of person. They should be for the person who has no interest ever to go a museum.”

Libeskind’s design for the Denver Art Museum, a US$62 million project for a major addition and a 1,000-car parking garage, is an important anchor for the city’s downtown redevelopment. It too embodies the notion that the depths of art and civilization can be rapidly accessed and devoured like a frappuccino. Exploding a single visual perspective was, of course, a driving ambition of the early modernists–Libeskind isn’t inventing anything here. In 1923, Le Corbusier provided gallery floors, bridges and ramps at the Maisons La Roche and Jeanneret in Paris-Auteuil–the houses are a spectacular translation of his purist art.

Libeskind says that it was the ROM’s collection of crystals that inspired his winning competition entry. However, the language of angled, faceted forms also informs the Denver building, along with other of his projects. Libeskind refers to it as a “crisp, crystalline building flowering from the soil.” The Denver and Toronto projects might share turf in North America. But one is an art museum in a struggling American downtown, while the other serves a remarkable dual collection of civilization and natural history at one of the most coveted corners in a vibrant Canadian city centre.

Last fall, the ROM sponsored a public event to invite some critical feedback to the design sketchbooks of the initial seven short-listed firms. I participated on the panel with David Crombie, Robert Fulford and designer Andrew Jones. My initial response to the sketchbooks remains the same: an overwhelming feeling that the museum as the last refuge for contemplation, free from the consumer world, has slipped away. In my recent interview with Libeskind during one of his now regular visits to Toronto, I asked him about who he is trying to seduce with his design for the ROM, and how. Something spectacular is required, he says, to attract all kinds of people, especially the individual who wouldn’t typically go to a museum:

“At first there is a spectacular space of initiation to the possibilities of the museum–it’s projections, it’s sound, it’s an atmosphere which, by the way, has the intertwining stairs that really move in space along the faceted and somewhat vertiginous walls of the crystal. Only after you’ve been initiated to that do you really penetrate into the depth of the building and then comes the central wing–it’s not really a one-liner. Of course the vitrines allow the museum to be immediately available. You are immediately with the dinosaurs, or the icons of Asian art, or the incredible Native people’s art. Plus also the impact of retail which is, I think, extremely important so that one is not designing a series of walls that just divide things but you are blurring the lines so that there is a new perception of how the commerce of the museum–the gifts, the things that you can buy, books, where kids can play–and how that can work with the very important atmosphere of events in the evening or the morning.”

Libeskind agrees that the museum should remain as a place of contemplation. But, he says, it addresses a complex public. “The public wants to be entertained, wants to have contemplation, wants to have a solitary, almost mystical experience in the museum, the public wants to interact with other people… they want to go to restaurants, go to cafes… it’s a microcosm of the world.”

This is Libeskind’s most important commission to date in North America. Toronto means something to him. He traveled to Toronto while studying at New York’s Cooper Union for the Arts to see Scarborough College and the new City Hall. He taught at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture during the 1970s. Nina Libeskind, his wife and business partner, is from Toronto. The design will evolve. When it does, the project could accomplish new levels of bravery and experience in architecture.

As the project proceeds into further design stages, much of the hard work that will ensure that Libeskind gets it right belongs to the ROM’s Building Committee. Michael Miller, Chair of the Department of Architectural Science and Landscape Architecture at Ryerson University, and Elizabeth Sisam, Director of Campus & Facility Planning at the University of Toronto, sat on the Working Group with several others; they provided architectural expertise during the review process, but did not have a vote in the final selection. The Selection Committee included a regular who’s who of wealthy patrons–including Andrea Bronfman, Joey Tanenbaum and Belinda Stronach–but only one architect: Leslie Rebanks, whose firm is best known for police stations and Loblaw’s supermarkets. William Thorsell has already proven to be a dedicated client, but he needs to call on acclaimed, thoughtful architects from within and outside Canada to provide regular crits of the project. Expert advisors should be consulted to ensure the design is evolving to meet its complex set of requirements. This is standard practice for major cultural commissions in Europe, and one that the ROM and other expanding institutions in Toronto should adopt–now that the city is growing up all over again.

Lisa Rochon writes on architecture for The Globe and Mail and teaches as an adjunct assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.