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2006 10 27
The ROM Crystal Vs The Denver Art Gallery
Denver Art Gallery

The ROM Crystal

When a building as radically different as the ROM's Crystal juts into our visual consciousness, the natural instinct is to think it is unique to our city. With the opening on Oct. 7 of Denver's new art gallery addition, also by architect Daniel Libeskind, some Torontonians are wondering if we got a copy of a crystal, not the original.

It is important to remember the Denver Art Gallery's Frederic C. Hamilton Building began its life years ahead of the ROM's Michael Lee Chin Crystal. Libeskind was already designing the Denver building before he dashed off the infamous napkin drawings as his entry to the ROM expansion competition.

So, it is no surprise both buildings adopt a language that Libeskind first brought to world attention with his Jewish Museum in Berlin. He continues to use his personal design style in proposals for the World Trade Center in New York and many others.

Why not? After all, we all know a Frank Gehry building when we see one. Why can't the ROM Crystal be part of a series of architectural works by one of the world's more innovative building designers?

Still, some say they feel cheated. Maybe the experience is like being a child waiting expectantly for the newest bike at Christmas, only to wake up and see every kid on the block riding one.

Novelty is serious business in the world of art tourism. A city's unique architectural treasures attract visitors. Those people bring tourist dollars. We need them.
How important are those dollars? In New York, marketing firm Audience Research & Analysis says that the Museum of Modern Art generates about $2-billion in spending in that city. That is billion with a ''b.'' Culture is big business.

What happens to those dollars when almost overnight an attraction's uniqueness is seemingly undercut by the opening of another, familiar looking building? Will this lessen tourists' desire to visit our city?

The ROM's CEO, William Thorsell, says no, it is a mistake to look at two different buildings from ''35,000 feet'' and conclude they are the same.
''There are some superficial resemblances,'' says Thorsell, ''but they are two very different buildings. If you look at Libeskind's buildings up close, each is a unique solution to its context and program.''

''The Denver gallery is much different than the ROM Crystal. Their building stands alone on a side street, while ours engages the existing building on one of Toronto's major streets. Theirs is less transparent.''

Thorsell is confident enough to speculate that, ''Many people would find it a great thing to go back and forth between the two buildings to see how different and unique they are.''

It is easy to agree. Toronto is in the process of constructing buildings that will define the city's culture for decades to come. Diamond and Schmidt's opera house led the way, along with KPMB's Gardiner Museum renovation. Both are successful and both are unique in that they respond to local site conditions and the occupants' programs. They are not object buildings like Libeskind's, but they are exceptional nonetheless.

The ROM Crystal will be a landmark in the city. It will attract tourists, but it is not the reason visitors will return to this great institution. What will enchant visitors and keep them excited will be the people -- the curators, researchers, scholars, support staff and artists -- whose interpretation of history and the world will find a focus inside Libeskind's Crystal or Gehry's AGO. We saw evidence of this when the ROM opened its renovated galleries late last year. They are well considered. The curation is strong. They work.

The value of these new cultural symbols goes well beyond their physical form. Sure, a lot of investment rides on their popular success as design objects, but like the kid at Christmas will eventually learn, the real benefit comes from getting out and having access to parts of the world never before accessible. The benefit of those experiences will remain long after the novelty of the Crystal's form recedes into the background.

This story is also published in today's National Post
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 10/27 at 11:47 AM

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