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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The ROM Crystal: a building that tries too hard?

Wytold Rybczynski, in an article in the Wall Street Journal, discusses the phenomenon of superstar architects whose "iconic" buildings fall short of expectations. Some buildings become iconic masterpieces, like Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House or Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Cities all over the world are attempting to reproduce the "Bilbao effect" - erecting buildings that become destinations that define and revitalize their communities. Toronto, not wanting to be left behind, is in the midst of a frenzy of construction of "iconic" buildings of its own - Daniel Libeskind's ROM Crystal and Gehry's AGO renovation among others.

Rybczynski pronounces the ROM crystal a qualified failure:
Daniel Libeskind is another architect who, following his universally acclaimed Jewish Museum in Berlin, was considered to have the Midas touch when it came to signature buildings. Yet his recent crystalline addition to the Denver Art Museum has failed to attract the expected number of visitors, and another crystalline -- and slightly scary-looking -- extension to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has not exactly set the architectural world on fire. None of this bodes well for cities that are counting on instant icons to save them in a looming recession.

However, he has much praise for Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts by architect Jack Diamond - a building I love.
Another example of a building that responds to its setting is Toronto's new opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, designed by Diamond & Schmitt Architects. The traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium is situated within an unprepossessing blue-black brick box whose chief feature is a glazed lobby facing one of the city's main streets, University Avenue; dramatic, but hardly iconic. "It's easy to do an iconic building," says Jack Diamond, "because it's only solving one issue." The Four Seasons Centre addresses several issues: On the exterior, the building responds to a busy downtown site with transparency and openness; on the interior, it creates a multi-use lobby that includes an informal performance space and a remarkable all-glass stair; and in the 2,000-seat hall, it provides intimacy, excellent sight lines and exemplary acoustics. At $150 million, the cost of the Four Seasons Centre is relatively modest as opera houses go, but more important is how the money was spent -- on the hall and the interiors rather than on exterior architectural effects. There is something very Canadian about this hard-headed reticence.

Buildings such as the ... Toronto opera house seek to fit in rather than stand out, and to enhance rather than overwhelm their surroundings. While hardly shy, they don't stand there shouting, "Look at me!" Being in it for the long haul, they approach fashion gingerly, leaning to the conservative and well-tried rather than the experimental. They are handsome, beautiful even, but they don't strive to knock your socks off. Anti-icons, you might call them. Or just good architecture.

My prediction: In fifty years, the ROM crystal will be seen as an embarassing mistake and millions of dollars will be spent tearing it down & restoring the ROM to some semblance of a proper working museum. Meanwhile, the Four Seasons Centre will be studied by architecture students trying to replicate its success.


Anonymous said...

I was there a couple of months ago with my daughter, and she noted that

1) the new and the old building don't fit well together

2) the weird angles make for a lot of dead space that isn't useful.

She's 9.

I agree. This particular project seems to have been much ado about nothing.

Skinny Dipper said...

Personally, I like the shape of the crystal from the outside. It looks like a gem. However, when I go inside, I feel the dull, dark greyness. There are too few windows to connect to the outside. It is a faux-crystal that disappoints me.

Anonymous said...

it's the result of serious corruption at ROM and Ontario generally, on both sides of politics, and the crystal will symbolise this once the truth comes out, it's pus not purity

Anonymous said...

I count myself among those who are firmly convinced that Daniel Libeskind is a disgusting charlatan and pretentious asshole. But don't take it from me. Here's what Washington Post Architectural Critic, Philip Kennicott, had to say about Libeskind's ROM in an article comparing it with Frank Gehry's AGO -

"Gehry's real accomplishment in Toronto is the reprogramming of a complicated amalgam of old spaces. That's not sexy, like titanium curves, but it's essential to the project. Just ask anyone who has visited Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum expansion by Daniel Libeskind, which may be the most perverse and disastrous museum expansion in living memory."