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the diary thing. 03.08.02 .rom
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the new ROMWHEN 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 style. 

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 road. 

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 museum.

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". 

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"You cannot be both fashionable and first-rate."

- Logan Pearsall Smith
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I've just had the most horrible thought. What if the enemy being fought in southast Afghanistan isn't al Qaeda, or even Taliban? What if the civil war has begun in earnest, and the U.S. has agreed to help Karzai's weak, unpopular government suppress warring factions? In the week or two since fighting started I haven't seen a single picture of the enemy, dead or alive, and no clear way of telling that they're anything but miserable, dirty men with guns and turbans.

I have this memory of Russian conscripts being sent to Afghanistan, told that they'd be fighting the Americans there, and finding only Afghans. I truly, actually hope I'm wrong about this.
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john scalzi
james lileks
alan zweig
weisblogg
mike reed
lucy huntzinger
warlog: ww3
blowback
little green footballs
ken layne
uss clueless
muslimpundit
andrew sullivan
arts & letters
relapsed catholic
 
IT'S A HORRIBLE THOUGHT, but the death of seven U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan this week might finally bring home the real nature of this war. Victory in Afghanistan was not, as was so fondly imagined, both easy and a given. The enemy was not so easily cowed, our allies not so cheaply acquired. 

It seemed, for the last few weeks at least, that the war had become much like the morally dismal conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia, or a faint echo of the war in the Gulf -- yet another modern, surveillance-camera "virtual war", a proving ground for technological innovations, with civilian casualties discussed with regret but little empathy. If it had remained so -- and there's still a chance that it might yet degenerate into this grim near-satire of "deconstructed" warfare -- it would have been the most cynical kind of legacy imaginable for the victims of 9/11. 

I tend to think we underrate the longing of people, even the traumatized and bereaved, for normalcy, for the banal. But even I was amazed at how quickly the quotidian fascinations with the trivial and the sensational re-emerged. We were supposed to see the end of irony, of gaudy kitsch culture, of loud, ugly entertainment like Schwarzenegger films. Six months later, network t.v. has already managed to digest 9/11 with it's usual, python-like ease, and the inevitability of a 9/11 movie -- unthinkable in the somber, penitent mood of last fall -- is by now a foregone conclusion

It's why I was so angry about the "axis of evil" speech, and its attendant policy of dragooning vaguely, or utterly unrelated U.S. foreign policy grudge matches into the "war on terrorism". It seemed cynical, and I haven't changed my mind about that at all, regardless of how fondly I might like to see Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Il join Ceaucesciu and Pol Pot in the broken tyrants bin. 

(Frankly, if I was setting priorities in the tyrant-toppling office of the Defence Department, I'd put Robert Mugabe at the top of the list just right now. Not since Milosevic in '98 have I had such an overpowering urge to run a man through. But until al Qaeda sets up a cell in Harare, I think his despicable hunger for power should be motivation enough for something stronger than sanctions and a stern blackballing by the Commonwealth.)

It seemed like whatever soul-searching, dismay and fervent curiousity about what made 9/11 possible --fueled by a righteous anger at first, by a sense of purpose later -- might just have made this war more than merely a lunge across the globe for revenge. We might still salvage something valuable from this thing; it's happened before, in a baleful way after the First World War, in a more noble way after the Second World War. That both opportunities ended up being somehow squandered in the end doesn't discourage me from hoping -- foolishly, I'm sure -- that a miracle just might happen.

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Michael Ignatieff, Virtual War buy it

Bob Dylan, Love and Theft buy it

I guess I had to wait over thirty years to actually get Dylan, or at least hear a record by the man that I totally grok. I love Dylan's whole look, the whole persona he's grown into: the far-out old man in the black suit and pencil moustache, playing rockabilly and blues in badly-lit spaces with this slick band of slightly retro-looking pros. I get the feeling that this was what he was trying to do with the Band all those years ago, but had to wait to really get it right. I love the way he answered some witless, reverent journalist who wanted to know why he wore a black suit onstage these days; Dylan said, curtly, that it's what you wear when you go to work. I love the faintly hostile, suspicious glare on his face, the look of a man used to being misunderstood, and too old by now to imagine that anyone will manage the feat. This is such a great record. I don't have a clue what he's singing about.

There's this one line, in "Tweedledum and Tweedledee", that I adore: Dylan sings -- hisses, really -- "Your presence is obnoxious to me." Yes, exactly. It's a phrase that runs through my head, every day, without fail.
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