Public Building

Whatever spin you put on Daniel Libeskind’s winning proposal for the Renaissance ROM initiative, you’ve got to hand it to museum president and CEO William Thorsell. With little money, but with more flair than anybody at the Royal Ontario Museum has flaunted in living memory, Thorsell managed to use a smartly publicized selection process and a well-orchestrated series of architectural exhibitions and events to get people talking again about Canada’s grandest cultural treasury.

Until it actually happened, many an observer of Toronto’s cultural comings and goings would have said it just couldn’t be done.

For as long as anybody can remember, after all, the museum has been trying to throw a pose on the corner of Queen’s Park and Bloor Street West that would cause eyebrows to snap to attention. Inspired by passing populist breezes, it mounted dumb shows that earned it little more than hoots and bad press. Then, upon recalling its indelible status as one of the world’s great encyclopaedic museums, it did smart, beautiful exhibitions that nobody came to see. It commissioned studies on ways its image could be spiffed up–then added new gallery space with all the allure of a parking garage. And, most amazing of all, the ROM managed to display its incomparable artefacts in galleries that, too often, seemed to have taken real effort to look so bad.

A mummy’s curse seemed to lie on the museum, dooming it to fade gradually from Toronto’s map of must-see cultural sites. Or so it seemed to William Thorsell, former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, when executive head-hunters asked him to think about running the ROM.

“I came over, walked around for a few hours, and was quite shocked by the way time had left this place behind,” Thorsell told me in his small, neat office in the ROM’s curatorial wing.

“I was amazed at how incoherent the museum was, and how it had obviously not made an investment in leadership for a while. We all travel–you go to Paris, you see this boom in the redevelopment of museums at the centre of cities, and when you think about it, they’re not happening in Toronto. But look at these collections! The location! Here are nice old buildings which have been compromised and hurt by what was done over all those years. As a Torontonian, you look at it and you get kind of angry. Why can’t all these assets be brought out and lined up and put together to create something wonderful? I told them that it would cost a couple of hundred million dollars, and I doubted very much that the board would be interested in anything that big–so thank you very much!”

What Thorsell did not learn until later in the interview process–what nobody knew, apparently, outside the inner sanctum of the board–was that the ROM trustees and friends had already begun to think about expanding and overhauling the museum. “They were looking at a hotel and condos on top of the museum. I was glad they were thinking big–but all I could say was: don’t do that!

“So when I went to see the search committee, I talked about all the assets I thought were under-utilized. The ROM had a cliff on Queen’s Park, a moat on Bloor. It had turned its back on the city, made no use of the roof, there was no plan to bring the subway in here–all the urban integration issues. But what was central was the rank of the museum internationally. It has deep collections, continuing research. There’s no reason for it to lose confidence in itself. It’s in the first rank, and shouldn’t waver from that. The museum should have very, very high standards. They should understand who their audience is, and not lose faith in that audience, not dumb down, not turn themselves into a science centre or some post-modern version of what a museum could be. I told them, ‘If you hire me, we’re going to do that project, and do it in the context of a museum that is first rank in both science and art.’ At the end of the day, they called me up and said ‘that’s what we want to do.'”

From the day he moved into the director’s chair in August 2000, the Alberta-born CEO was doing things in ways that must have seemed wildly topsy-turvy to the cautious suits who populate the boards of Toronto’s cultural institutions. Instead of first carefully salting the fund-raising coffers with public cash, he decided to launch the ROM’s next great transformation with hardly a nickel in the bank. Instead of discreetly sounding out the interest of a few “safe” architects, he resolved to push the architectural competition as much into the open as possible. (A more usual instance of the snobbily secretive Hogtown approach is the current behaviour of the Art Gallery of Ontario. This citizen-owned institution is doing its dead-level best to stonewall citizen participation in the talks between Toronto billionaire Kenneth Thomson and superstar architect Frank Gehry about an AGO overhaul that will drastically recast the architectural presence of the art museum. Gallery director Matthew Teitelbaum declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“We would do architecture in a very public way because it’s the most visible, immediately influential part of what we will do. This is a public institution, the public owns it. It’s a public site, so we talked about a very public process of trying to get architects to come, and be paid almost nothing, if anything.

“So it was pretty cheeky to go out and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a great idea for this big new museum for $200 million, and we’re hoping to raise some money. And if we raise some money, the board will approve it at some time in the future. Please come to Toronto for free, make all kind of presentations to us, and if you’re in the final three, we’ll give you $30,000 US’!”

From this rickety perch, the ROM shot off its call for applications in June 2001–and to everybody’s surprise (not least Thorsell’s) the museum quickly got no fewer than 52 expressions of interest. On the roster of respondents were some of the world’s most conspicuous institutional architects: Cesar Pelli, Kohn Pederson Fox, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Foster + Partners, Jean Nouvel and the ultimate winner of the competition, Daniel Libeskind. (Contrary to published reports, Libeskind’s name was never stripped from a list and replaced by another. He was on the roster, says Thorsell, from the beginning.)

But as the nine-member selection committee and its large working group whittled down the list from 52 to 12 semi-finalists in the summer of 2001, some front-running designers began to feel a chill. Of the offices that ended up on the ROM board’s short list of 12, five dropped out.

“Some looked at the project and saw that there was so much already there,” says Thorsell. “They asked, ‘What palette does it really give us?’ It’s partly renovation and retrieval, partly new. Some of them found that too confusing. Others said that, if there were a green field and they were able to build a new building, that would be one thing. But there was so much inherited material here. The architects who agreed to go forward were a very interesting seven.”

It was in the autumn months after the announcement of the semi-final seven that Thorsell moved to connect with what he believed to be a swelling tide of citizen concern about Toronto’s architectural excellence–or, more accurately, the city’s spectacular lack thereof.

“We were going to have a public process, because we were playing with such enormous assets in such a public arena. We could have an enormous effect on the city, and we had to draw attention to the fact that something was really happening here. Architecture is a wonderful vector to use in this regard, because everybody cares about it, as they should. So we set up a gallery [of architectural sketchbooks] in November, and held a public forum with David Crombie, Andrew Jones, Robert Fulford, and Lisa Rochon. Five hundred people came, with an overflow outside. It was an incredible experience, with a lot of messages coming from the floor. One was: ‘All right, OK, the architects need support, but don’t forget the content, don’t dumb down the museum.’ It was all good, healthy talk, and we knew
we were tapping into a city that wanted something to happen.”

If solid proof of popular interest was still wanting after the widely reported events of late 2001, it came in an avalanche during the three consecutive February nights on which each of the three finalists made his case and fielded questions for the audience. By Thorsell’s count, Italian architect Andrea Bruno drew 600 guests to his evening talk, Vancouver’s Bing Thom 600, and Daniel Libeskind an overflow crowd of 1,600. The turnout on those three nights– a cross section of Toronto city folk ranging from chic young artists and architects to pin-striped social movers and Mr. and Mrs. Joe Average–strongly underscored Thorsell’s contention that “there is an enormous appetite in Toronto to get back to the business of city-building.”

Renaissance ROM will be a success for Thorsell only if it goes beyond adding another architectural bauble to the Toronto cityscape and becomes a force for architectural revival in the city centre. Daniel Libeskind’s forthcoming transfiguration of the museum will doubtless add visual drama to Toronto’s streets. But it will also show doubters that drama can be bought by institutions on a budget.

This fact was becoming clear to Thorsell and board and staff members in January, when they took a swing through Europe to visit the existing projects and offices of both Bruno and Libeskind.

“We were able to see what they had done and talk to their clients, then sit in their offices and get down to detail. By the time we were flying back from Paris, all three were still alive, but Libeskind had quite a bit of momentum by that time, because his addressing of the programme was so detailed and so intelligent. When Libeskind came to Toronto and the models went up, there was a lot of buzz on the Libeskind side. It just seemed to attract a lot of excitement.

“Of course, the public voted with its feet on the night of his presentation. But ultimately it was the more technical reports on costs, disruption, maintenance and how his proposal met the programme. Libeskind was the cheapest, the fastest, the least disruptive, and he met the programme requirements for galleries most creatively and intelligently. Though he’s got a very dramatic look, he’s the only one of the three finalists who didn’t want to tear down the ROM’s centre block. All that would have to be rebuilt. In his crystal building, we don’t have to build whole new foundations. The Libeskind project is very good value for money, and its got wonderful transformative power. It’s going to turn the ROM’s No into a Yes, bring transparency to this whole corner, use the roof, create a landscape of desire inviting people to come in, and give us the machinery to bring all the collections out in ways they should be brought out.

“Toronto has been sitting on the sidelines for more than a decade, watching the world go by. But you can tell people now are just filled with gumption and verve–not just for cultural institutions, but for the waterfront and roads and social housing and all the good things that make cities work. The business community is in that mood. All the people who have social concerns for Toronto are in that mood, they want the city to re-stitch the social fabric back together. The urban-lovers who like trees and boulevards and parks and streets–all that, too! They all realize we need to get back on the road.”

So how did Toronto get off the road?

“In the ’60s and ’70s, the city emerged from its 1950s miasma into this very surprising place, and became quite famous for being surprising. We all took it seriously; but in the 1980s, we coasted on it. There was a big recession at the beginning of the ’80s, then a strong recovery. That was the famous Peterson era of high consumption, the Skydome, lots of monster houses and BMWs. But we coasted for some reason, until the early 1990s, when the worst recession since the Second World War hit Toronto. Los Angeles and Toronto were the black holes of the last recession. Both cities really got slammed.”

But are Toronto’s movers and builders and money people as ready to jump as Thorsell thinks, in these days when the city is pulling itself out of its most recent economic slam? With the same bravado that has served him and his institution well during the search for an architect to create Renaissance ROM, Thorsell declares: “I feel it everywhere I go–the roar of Yes! Yes! Yes!”

John Bentley Mays is a Toronto writer.