I feel like the little kid in the fairy tale who yelled out "the Emperor has no clothes!" at the big parade while everyone else was ooo-ing and ahh-ing. After recently visiting the Royal Ontario Museum's much-hyped Daniel Libeskind addition, known as the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, I can confidently state that the Crystal is now officially Toronto's ugliest building - a position formerly held by the University of Toronto's Robarts Library (below).
First, let's get something straight. I'm not one of those traditionalists who hates every structure built after the death of Queen Victoria. There are some remarkable modern buildings in Toronto: the Toronto Dominion Centre, Toronto City Hall, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, BCE Place to name a few. So, I had high hopes when I went to check out Toronto's own Libeskind building. I came out thinking "what a mess".
The marriage of the old ROM building with the Crystal is not so much a marriage as an assault. The two structures appear jarring & non-sensical together, and the Crystal wrapped around the old building reminds me of the kind of giant temporary scaffolding you would put up during a renovation - only this scaffolding isn't coming down when the renovation is complete.
The old ROM's theatrical entrance on the Queen's Park side - where you used to go up the big flight of granite steps through the gigantic wooden doors into the massive domed rotunda - is now locked and unused. You now have to walk around the building from the Museum subway station to the Bloor St. side and poke around for the new entrance, which looks like temporary access through a construction-site hoarding.
Once inside, you are faced with a maze of huge empty spaces & corridors to nowhere. It is impossible to navigate through the collections, and the floor-plan in the brochure bears no resemblance to the frustrating reality of the building. I frequently found myself trapped in a dead-end part of the Crystal that had no apparent connection to the rest of the building, and several times had to retrace my steps to the main lobby to start again. It is impossible to view the collections in any kind of logical sequence without a GPS locating system. Several times I asked staff for directions, and even then couldn't find the Greek & Roman gallery. More than once I found myself accidentally deposited in the Chinese wing, which apparently has no exits. The whole experience was maddening.
The famous stairwells remind me of the concrete stairwells in a parking garage. In fact, having parked my car at the Fairview Mall & taken the subway downtown, I had a distinct sense of Libeskind-ian deja vu when I returned to pick up my car at the mall. The stairwells in the Crystal are rough unfinished concrete, the walls are clad in drywall, and the doors on each floor resemble industrial steel fire doors and often open into empty spaces and blind alleys. The only things missing are the panhandlers and the smell of urine.
Speaking of the collection, most of the Crystal is still empty and the top two floors have signs saying "Installation in Progress", so the much hyped opening of the new building seems a little premature. The installation of the new exhibits has forced the closure of many of the old galleries - if your kids are bugging you to take them to see the dinosaur skeletons, good luck with that. However, even when the new building is complete, it will have so disrupted the floor plan & traffic flow of the entire museum that I would advise you to hire Sherpas to take you through it.
Now a word about Daniel Libeskind. I'm going to be labelled a Philistine for this, but I think Mr. World-famous Architect has had one good idea in his career and he's been milking it for years by selling it to gullible cities like Toronto. Here's his Jewish Museum in Berlin. Look familiar?
Here's the Denver Museum of Art. Hmm. Starting to sense a pattern.
Here's his Graduate Centre at London's Metropolitan University. You get the idea.
Yes, I know that architects have signature styles, but this is ridiculous. Frank Lloyd Wright had a signature style, but every one of his important buildings is unique, and uniquely suited to its function. Can you say the same about a Libeskind "masterpiece"? (By the way, I feel the same way about Frank Gehry's crumpled tin-foil buildings, one of which is about to open in Toronto when the Art Gallery of Ontario's renovation is complete).
Time will tell if the ROM Crystal is indeed a masterpiece of modern architecture, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the good burghers of Toronto have been had.