A decade after the Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal opened to a chorus of boos, have feelings softened?
The ROM Crystal in Toronto may be the most hated building in Canada. It’s been 10 years since the design – famously scrawled on the back of a napkin by star architect Daniel Libeskind – became a part of Toronto’s streets. The addition is all angles, its glass and aluminum seem to jut out of the ground in a display of raw power. It’s a stark contrast to the stately ROM that had stood since 1914.
When the Crystal debuted, negative responses were loud and sustained. “The Royal Ontario Museum, like many museums of civilization around the globe, offers collections dedicated to the great artistic triumphs of the world as well as the evolutionary complexity of nature. So, why does it feel as though we’ve landed in the Inferno or possibly the Purgatorio of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy?” wrote Lisa Rochon in The Globe and Mail.
In the National Post, Peter Kuitenbrouwer spoke with passersby about the soon-to-be-open building: “To be perfectly frank, I think it’s a disaster,” said one unnamed architect. The owner of a neighbouring business chimed in: “‘We’re thinking some trees here to block the view,’ he says. ‘One of my clients said it’s a good thing she’s losing her eyesight.’”
The most pointed critique came in the final days of 2009, courtesy of Philip Kennicott, art and architecture critic (and future Pulitzer Prize winner) at The Washington Post. “Sure, there were a lot of Wal-Marts thrown up in the Aughts, but Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto surpasses the ugliness of bland functional buildings by being both ugly and useless,” he wrote. Kennicott named the Crystal the worst example of architecture of the 2000s.
Not all comments, however, were negative. In the Toronto Star, architecture and urban affairs writer Christopher Hume was one of the Crystal’s few early defenders. “As much as the new ROM may be about spectacle, especially architectural spectacle, there’s nothing flashy or crass about it,” he wrote.
Today, Hume stands by his positive assessment. “[The Crystal] seemed to express a desire to bring not just the museum, not just the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road, but the whole city, into the 21st century without diminishing the past,” he says.
Hume does, however, agree with some of the criticism – namely, how the interior space can be unwieldy and is hated by the museum’s curators. “It gives them more space, but a lot of that space comes in the form of slanting walls and spaces they can’t use,” he says.
Alexander Josephson, co-founder of architecture and design firm Partisans, says that for all the Crystal’s functional faults, it remains an important addition to Toronto. “Beauty emerges when design misbehaves. And that’s misbehaviour,” he says. Josephson explains that buildings like the ROM are cultural infrastructure. “If you build that unambitiously, what kind of culture is that? What does that say about you?” he says.
Josephson notes that people in Toronto are risk-adverse when it comes to architecture – they prefer the status quo. But he says that, over time, even buildings that were disliked by some – Robarts Library, the TD Centre – become appreciated: “Architecture needs time to sink in.”
As the Crystal’s 10-year anniversary passes and turns to 20 years, and then 50, newer changes and renovations will occur (its heritage Weston Entrance, facing Queen’s Park, is currently going through a $1.5 million revitalization and will reopen to the public is September). It is possible that public perception will soften, and the Crystal will become accepted, maybe even beloved.
This long view of architecture is a point that Hume also makes. “It takes Torontonians years, if not decades, to get over their shock, to learn to accept something, and finally to love it,” he says.