Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The ROM in Review: The Building

About two weeks ago I visited the Royal Ontario Museum for the first time in a year or more. It marked the first time I'd visited since the completion of the Michael Lee-Chin "Crystal" (shown above), among other major renovations. I'll admit - I was skeptical about these renovations from the very start. Previously, the ROM had undergone a major renovation in the 1970s and 1980s; the space between the original neo-Romanesque wings had been enclosed, giving rise to grand halls lit by natural light as well as terraced galleries on the Bloor St. elevation. That's the ROM I grew up with; with only small exceptions, it remained pretty much the same from the late 80s until the current renovations began.

I won't lie and say that nothing should have changed, but I remain very attached to the ROM as it once was; growing up my grandparents frequently took me, my brother, and my cousins there on Saturday mornings, and it goes without saying that those visits made a strong impression on me. So, my review of the "new" ROM should be read in light of this, but I will say that my feelings on the renovations (and changes to some of the galleries in particular) are based on a more objective assessment. The ROM I knew is gone; so how does the new ROM stack up?

Well, first I should point out that not everything has changed. The Galleries of Birds, Reptiles, Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Bronze Age Aegean Art are all exactly as they were, as are the Samuel European Galleries, which continues to house arms and armour as well as a history of European decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the present day. The totem poles haven't moved, and the rotunda is as beautiful as ever. Additionally, since the original Crystal renovation plans were considerably scaled down, due to a variety of engineering and cost considerations (evidently, large amounts of glass to form such a Crystal are not just structurally unsound, but nightmarish for heating and cooling and, of course, the protection of fragile artifacts), the southern half of the 1984 renovation is completely intact. I daresay that even the washrooms haven't warranted an upgrade.

What's gone? Well, every single other gallery has been redone and moved. The Crystal structure has taken over the northern half of the building, and, bizarrely for a building with no fewer than five levels open to the public, the escalators appear to be gone permanently. For reasons I cannot fathom, the long-standing entrance on Queen's Park Crescent, which welcomed visitors into the stunning rotunda, has been abandoned in favour of a Bloor entrance, which provides visitors with an excellent view of a lot of white drywall. I may as well discuss the Crystal itself first.

The Building: I think the best I can say about the Crystal is that it's not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. The design has been considerably scaled down, as I noted above. Originally, the Crystal would've stretched nearly all the way back to the Planetarium; now, it just looms over Bloor, giving the impression that a Goa'uld mothership has landed on a mission to enslave Yorkville.

The idea behind the Crystal was to make the ROM into a "distinctive new symbol of Toronto for the 21st century" by embarking upon "one of the most important architectural projects of our time". Thus the dawn of the "Crystal Age" would make the stately old museum into the country's "premier cultural and social destination". Yes, they actually used this language to describe the renovation. The "new age" was to be ushered in by "starchitect" Daniel Libeskind, most of whose buildings display decidedly unconventional ideas, with all manner of strange sight lines and angular ceilings and walls. Of course, it would be more unconvential if this sort of post-modern architecture weren't so excessively trendy.

Inside the Crystal, you will indeed find all the hallmarks of Libeskind's angular designs. However, since the amount of glass had to be drastically scaled down (too much natural light in a museum is a bad thing), the interior consists of large swaths of white drywall. In fact, from some of the open spaces inside, it looks as though an iceberg has lodged itself into the side of the building, sort of like a Lawren Harris painting brought to life (only with less colour). The drywall is rather boring, though, and I cannot figure out why new escalators were not put in. There is at most one new elevator and, of course, a new staircase, but it seems ludicrous that crucial issues of accessibility were evidently overlooked. It's not just a matter of helping out the disabled or those with arthritis - carting around a bunch of kids is easier, I think, when they don't have to be crammed into elevators frequently.

Indeed, much about the new design veers far in the direction of "form" as opposed to "function". The angular walls are problematic for the efficient use of space in the second and third floor galleries of the Crystal especially; not only are the galleries cramped and disjointed, but the large amounts of angular white drywall create lots of useless open space that detracts from the exhibits aesthetically. At the same time, different sections of the upper levels of the Crystal are connected by walkways and short staircases, the surfaces of which are actually metal gratings that feel only slightly more stable than those that run over subway vents. The gratings are noisy and, to be blunt, ugly. I don't know what they were thinking, though I'm hoping that they're just temporary. In any case, one of those runs incongruously right into the arms and armour exhibit, so that the Crystal connects to some of the older sections of the building. This comes at the cost of an entire section of the exhibit (the antique firearms to be precise).

So, in sum, I don't much like the Crystal addition. It's definitely not very practical, but I could somewhat forgive that if it were actually impressive on the inside. It isn't, and I can conclude that Libeskind is tremendously overrated as an architect. That's not to say that I dislike contemporary modern architecture - just the opposite - but the new ROM is completely lacking in the seamless unity of form and function that is present in, say, the Canadian Museum of Civilization or the National Gallery. Now those are magnificent buildings. So, incidentally, is much of the existing ROM (as were the terraced galleries razed to make way for the Crystal), but the Crystal neither works with the original structures nor is it adequate taken by itself. The work is not done yet, though, so perhaps it will yet improve.

Since this post is already very long, I'll write a second post entirely about the galleries tomorrow.


Ladyjutea said...

I have to say that I passed by the ROM last Thursday with Brenda and was not at all impressed. Your description of the interior has made me even more bitter on this subject and I have decided to insert a brand new section into "Ookie Cookie" where the Museum of Idunnowat is described. I love Toronto, but there are some things that just don't seem to be improving AT ALL.

Anonymous said...

I read your review after I saw the museum last week. It was so true to the point. While much of the old museum is still there, the addition of the so called crystal structure 'takes away' more than it 'adds'. The space is not harmonious - the architecture protrudes awkwardly into the museum, and the layout defies logic. There is little to appreciate looking in to out. While the structure might draw people in, I think few will return after they go there. I went on a Friday night so it was already half price - still $10 bucks! I remember a time when Friday nights were free and there were actually some cultural events - people came with their families and you felt like you were in a place that wasn't just a building, the place was alive - it had spirit/personality. That was the museum I grew up with and loved...that's now long gone. In its place are pieces of metal shlopped together with some glass that has transformed the museum into an insitution that is now so far disconnected with the people that surrounds it.