At an event celebrating the June 1 opening of his addition to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Daniel Libeskind spoke about one of the many pleasures of a building’s completion and opening: “The architect doesn’t speak for the building, the building speaks on its own, and will be clear.” While the design for the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal undoubtedly has conceptual underpinnings that might seem be obscure to anyone but the architect himself, the result has a pleasing literalism that does speak for itself.
The 175,000-square-foot addition is made up of five distinct glass-and-aluminum volumes that burst forth from the arms of the original building, and looks very much like the geodes in the collection that reportedly inspired it. Visitors now enter the museum through the Crystal’s lobby, a tightly-framed space that opens up dramatically into an atrium where the old and new buildings meet. The entire first floor will be open and free to the public, in keeping with Libeskind’s original proposal to make a grand public room.
At the center of the museum,both literally and metaphorically, is the “Spirit House”, a space created by the intersection of the five volumes. Other than 13 massive Libeskinddesigned stainless steel chairs, there is nothing in it, although the museum plans to add a sound installation by composer John Oswald. This atrium extends up the full height of the museum, and is criss-crossed by metal bridges that connect different galleries. The bridges are an important part of the museum’s circulation, which is designed to allow visitors different views of the building, both old and new: One can look across the atrium and can see an exquisite kimono neatly framed in an interior window, or the clean juncture of the old building’s yellowgray brick and the plaster walls of the new.
The logic of the jagged form means that there are very few vertical walls in the whole addition. This level of follow-through is certainly admirable, but it does create some highly irregular spaces. At times, as in the top floor gallery for temporary exhibitions, it can work very well: A small statue of Buddha is set into a tight corner with a spot light, turning the otherwise-difficult space into a purposeful frame. According to director William Thorsell, because the majority of the ROM’s collection is made up of threedimensional objects, a traditional museum’s concern—i.e., wall space for hanging paintings— doesn’t factor. Dinosaur fossils, for example, look just as dramatic against a tilted wall as a straight one. The basement level, however, has a more traditional gallery space, which at 17,000 square feet, is the largest in the museum. The massive diagonal steel members that support the addition, which is structurally independent of the original building, cut through the space, but other than that, the gallery functions more or less as a white box, and will be dedicated to traveling shows.