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2007 12 19
The ROM as Spectacle, Nightmare and Catalyst for Change
From today's National Post

Robert Ouellete, director of Forum Bureau, a company obsessed with how design, collaboration technologies and the need for sustainability will change tomorrow's cities, files this Urban Scrawl on the ROM's much-maligned Michael Lee-Chin Crystal:

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Daniel Libeskind was in town on the weekend to see his Royal Ontario Museum design impose itself on to the public life of the city. Touring with a scrum of reporters, the architect beamed as Toronto’s once-dowdy and overlooked museum is proving more popular than detractors will admit.

If critics were waiting for a curatorial miss-hit on a par with the “Canada Collects” exhibition, the newly opened James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of Dinosaurs will disappoint them. While unconventional in their overall arrangement, the fossil collections are more than strong enough to hold their own against Libeskind’s geometry.

Visitors shared the opinion that whatever they might think of the design (by my quick survey, only one in five were critical), kids are in their element here. One parent with three young boys said he normally has to drag them around museums. In the Crystal, “they were teaching and leading me,” he said.0

Libeskind said, “Look at the eyes of the kids … facts here are living in a way that is totally real and ultimately magical. Where else in the world can you see dinosaurs from outside on the street?”

Still, while the overall collection is an intellectual tour de force and a natural draw for children, its galleries are hinged around the “Spirit House,” a towering central chamber that Libeskind says is the public heart of the building. Is it effective in that role?

It has been said architects do not invent anything, instead they transform reality. If any architect embodies that truism, it is Libeskind. His trademark forms first captured the public imagination with the controversial design for Berlin’s Holocaust Museum.

That building transformed the horror of genocide into a reason to rebuild the fractured city. Today, Berlin is born again.

Libeskind’s designs need big events to justify their boldness. That is one reason why he won the World Trade Centre redesign — again transforming a human disaster into a symbol for life, not death.

In the Spirit House, Libeskind is searching for a big theme to validate its design. The problem is that this museum, by intent, does not focus on one theme or event. There is no landmark tragedy here that demands a public catharsis.

When I spoke with Libeskind about it, he said that the Spirit House is “the place that is neither an atrium nor a lobby … where all the mysteries of the museum collide. It is an overture to the collection behind the walls.”

Right now, it fails at that mission. Instead of being well lit and bright — something you might expect from a crystal — the Spirit House is dramatically dark. Shadows texture the walls from white lights shining on them through steel decking. Libeskind’s plain steel Crystal chairs litter the room. Rather than mysterious, it looks like a scene from Blade Runner.

The fact that two of the four passageways leading into the space are now blocked off also makes the experience unconvincing. Gantry lights that remained off detract from the architect’s intent. Many visitors to the space just don’t get its point. Maybe that will change as construction ends and programming continues.

But if the Spirit House fails to be the centre of the ROM’s public life, other spaces in the new building succeed, especially where the old and new museums rub against each other.

Is the building a great contribution to Toronto’s public conversation? Libeskind answers this way. “The building forms a new path — it breaks new ground … and will bring people from all over to share an experience they have never had before.”

Like it or not, the Crystal acts as a transformational catalyst in the city. Is it a spectacle? Sure. Does it give curators nightmares? Yes. Is it one of Toronto’s most important public spaces, with the power to change the way we think about the city? Visit and find out.
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 12/19 at 02:20 PM

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