I WAS A BOY, my favorite place in the city was the Royal Ontario Museum.
I somehow managed to spend a day there every few months, despite an almost
pathological inability to understand public transit. I knew how to get
to the museum by subway, however -- not a considerable feat, by any means.
I mean, we only have two lines in this city, and the ROM's stop is called
Museum -- what do you expect to find there?
I can still remember when most of the museum was glass cases in rooms
where sunlight from high windows caught the dust motes drifting through
the air. Today, it's one of those spotlit, stage-managed museums with buttons
to push and sound effects for the dinosaurs and one gastropod fossil or
Sumerian tablet in a display case to stand in for the hundreds sitting
in storage elsewhere in the building. Still, it's my museum, and I've always
felt protective about it.
It's housed in your standard, H-shaped, venerable stone building,
begun before WW1 and completed just as the Depression made any new public
works unthinkable. That building -- all limestone and marble and august,
cliff-like face, with carved columns and noble inscriptions, and West Coast
Indian totem poles thrusting up the staircases -- is the museum of my youth.
The hollow spaces in the H were filled in during the Seventies -- which
might give you some idea of their rather tragic, unlovable, architectural
The southern gap in the H became a utilitarian monstrosity, a vast
brick blockhouse all out of proportion to the museum or the nearby university
buildings, where most of the offices and storage for the museum is housed.
The northern gap, facing Bloor street, is a bit more pleasant -- a terraced
gallery space that houses the Chinese tomb complex; the ROM's version of
the Temple of Dendur at the Met in New York. (The Chinese tomb ended up
being a fundraising focus for the city's Chinese community, or at least
it's richer, Hong Kong and Taiwanese members. I'm still not sure if New
York has many rich ancient Egyptians.)
But it's all very dated, and inadequate for the needs of the museum
today, or at least that's what the museum's board decided a couple of years
ago, when they inaugurated an architectural competition for a new addition.
Back when the H was filled in, Canada was in it's post-Trudeau nationalist
phase, and a homegrown architect was chosen as a matter of course. There
are some pleasant buildings in Canada, some of them even built within my
lifetime, but on the whole we're no world leaders on the world stage, or
at least we weren't until recently, when we began to insist that Frank
Gehry was, after all, born and raised here. (There are no Gehry buildings
in Canada, by the way, though that's apparently about to change.)
So we hired Frank Gehry to build the ROM addition, right? That's
what this is all leading up to? Well, no.
Late last year, the ROM competition was narrowed down to three finalists, but even then it was public knowledge that the winner would be Daniel Libeskind's "exploded crystal", a lethal-looking collision of glass planes (shown above) that would straddle the two spaces in the H and require the demolition of the Seventies additions. It would also shift the museum entrance from Queen's Park Boulevard to Bloor Street. Which seems like more than just a shame -- it's like suddenly declaring that east is north, at least in terms of this whatever logic rules my city.
LAST WEEK, Libeskind's design became a fait accompli,
by a vote of five to three from the board. No one was surprised, which
I suppose might explain why whatever voices of protest against the Libeskind
design seemed resigned, pro forma, aware that, even if most of the city
agreed, they'd still be marginalized by the voices of progress and "innovation".
The ROM's CEO, William Thorsell, made the usual fatuous sounds; the
new addition "has the strength of the future in it. It wasn't intimidated
by the past." At the same time it sets up "a good dialogue between the
old and the new." The essential abdication of logic presumed by these two
statements gives you some idea how offhanded Thorsell feels he can be,
now that the dumbshow competition is over, the real show finally on the
Libeskind's most famous design is the Jewish Museum in Berlin, a
harrowing space that opened without exhibits, but managed to convey the
horrors of the Holocaust even while empty. Where Gehry loves sinuous, biological shapes, Libeskind goes for sharp angles and the sensation of violence frozen in space. Somehow that doesn't strike me as appropriate to the ROM, or to my city in general. I've stared at the pictures and drawings in the
papers for days now, and I can't find anything to love there. More than
that, I hate what Libeskind, and the ROM's board, has planned for the old
THERE'S A LINGERING FEELING OF SHAME behind the decision to build
Libeskind's altogether overwhelming glass scar. Toronto might be a pleasant
enough city, with a few impressive, or at least charming public spaces,
but it's no architectural showplace. The dominant architcture of the city
is domestic, and is found on the residential sidestreets that fill the
spaces between our mostly unexciting retail avenues. Our vernacular building
material is cake-coloured red brick, hardly the stuff of great public monuments
or impressive urban landmarks. It's a modest city that, for some reason,
has never been comfortable with its modesty, like a church lady who wants
to be a society grande dame, but can't get the wardrobe right.
Libeskind's addition is our latest attempt to make a splash, and
I'm not sure it's welcome, outside of the blithe sophisticates on the ROM's
board. There's something disingenuous about William Thorsell telling the
newspapers that: "When you're dealing with a public institution like this,
you've got to make it a public process. People in the city have a great
interest in the city." The first sentence is a bit rich, considering that
all the decisions about the ROM addition, from the beginning to the end
of the competition, were made behind closed doors, by the museum's board.
The second sentence is merely inane, and reveals a seam of condescension
as jagged as Libeskind's design, and perhaps only slightly unconscious
of itself. Of course people living here care about living
here; perhaps Thorsell has worked too long so close to the provincial legislature, just next to the museum at Queen's Park, where city tax dollars are regularly confiscated to enrich outlying provincial districts that tend to vote Tory more regularly.
In any case, the choice of Libeskind's design seems a bit prescriptive,
like the board had decided that the people of Toronto -- a dull, unappreciative lot, to be sure -- were going to get world class architecture whether it liked it or not. In any case, I'm sure the esteemed board was getting a bit tired of travelling the world, envying the architecture of Paris, New York, London -- hell, even a hollowed-out factory town like Bilbao -- and apologizing to guests for their own city's dearth of highlights. Being
a provincial only becomes galling when you become aware of your provincialism.
Until that moment, it's possible to live happily enough, secure that at
least everything works, everything's there.
Which was how I felt about the ROM, even if I only managed to get
there every couple of years. It was there; altered, perhaps, and in some
way lessened, but my museum, nonetheless. Starting last week, and until
the new museum opens in three years, it couldn't just be there. Now it
has to assert itself, its worn gray skin draped in a flashy new coat. The
message is clear: It's not enough just to be there, to go about your business
with a bit of dignity, adjusting to age and time and the occasional lapping
wave of fashion.
We've become a Boomer city, eager to show that we can think young,
appreciate the new, and rebel against our dead parents. The sad thing is
that the people running the ROM are the same people on the bank boards,
at political fundraisers, at charity balls. Thorsell used to be the editor
of the Globe and Mail, the city's gray eminence of a newspaper.
They're like swinging parents at a key party, hipper than their kids, slowly
filling us with a sense of shame as they endlessly redecorate the house,
changing the landscape, unaware that citizens, like kids, resent every
alteration to the familiar, no matter now many times they're told that
it's "good for them".