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From Bloor Street, the unmistakable crystalline form of Daniel Libeskind’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal announces Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to the world. But beneath the angular spectacle of aluminum and glass, the front door beckons visitors into a dispiritingly narrow, dark corridor. The black granite floor is uncomfortably angled, and the dark, wedge-shaped space offers no hint of the cultural splendours within. In a room past the entryway and the iconic yet awkward body of the crystal, however, a media briefing introduced a first look at the museum’s transformative new chapter. Announced today, an initiative dubbed “OpenROM” renegotiates the institution’s relationship to the public — and the public realm.

The Bloor Street frontage will include a new water feature, as well as a reimagined front entrance.

Spurred by a landmark $50-million philanthropic gift from the Hennick Family Foundation, OpenROM signals a major shift in curatorial strategy and civic presence. It’s an evolution expressed in architecture. Led by Hariri Pontarini Architects co-founder Siamak Hariri, the three-year, $130-million project will transform the ground floor and public realm — including the front entrance — into a profoundly more open and democratic milieu. In place of the cavernous ticket counter that greets museum-goers today, a free gallery will occupy the front floor; key parts of the ROM’s collection will thus be moved to just steps away from the entrance. “OpenROM is more than a physical transformation; it is a major leap forward in the Museum’s ongoing evolution to becoming an even more welcoming and accessible space,” says ROM Director and CEO Josh Basseches.

The accessibility is both physical and cultural. Hariri Pontarini’s intervention carefully untangles much of the ROM’s slanted surfaces — particularly in the Crystal — to create universally accessible circulation through the heart of the museum and also gestures to the surrounding city. The reimagined Bloor Street front entrance introduces a gentle outdoor ramp that resolves a change in grade, and thereby facilitates the removal of the canted interior floors; where the ramp plateaus, the small plinth is topped by a sleek canopy that announces an assertively re-designed environment within.

Here, Hariri’s design takes centre stage. Framing the front entry, the lower level of Libeskind’s Crystal has been stripped naked and re-clad in sleek glass, exposing the angles of its supporting columns. It is a scintillating peek at the structure’s guts and an invitation to explore inside, dissolving the boundary between the rarefied and the civic realm. It also makes for a more pleasant, light-filled interior, where visitors are invited to explore what promises to be an eclectic ground-floor exhibit — all without a ticket.

The new ground floor is finished in a richly textured palette of natural materials, anchored by a limestone floor, and notes of wood and stone. The Crystal’s exposed pillars are sumptuously wrapped in bronze, creating a decidedly luxurious space. Complementing the sense of openness fostered by the new glass façade is the lobby’s bold new acoustic pine ceiling; carved out of it, a showpiece oculus imbues a more airy, light-filled ambiance — and opens a dramatic view into the ROM’s popular second-floor dinosaur gallery.

Alongside the oculus, the slimmed down new ticket booth is another stark contrast to the status quo. The existing counter is an explicit barrier for non-paying guests, while the elegantly streamlined new facility reflects a more democratic ethos — and a changing technological reality. While part of the museum will become free, the rise of digital and phone-based ticketing opens up more space for exhibitions and public enjoyment.

Beyond Libeskind’s shards, the atrium that spans the ROM’s three major wings — comprising the original 1914 museum, the 1933 Weston Family wing, and the 2008 Crystal addition — has also been transformed. A taller glass canopy replaces the opaque existing roof, bringing natural light into a flexible new space at the heart of the museum. Facilitating a wide range of public events and performances, the 223-square-metre main hall accommodates generous seating options, while a new café offers an everyday destination in a room like no other. And then there’s the stair.

A sinuous, elegantly irregular assemblage of bronze and steel, the “Lily-pad” staircase links the main hall to the second and third-floor galleries. Weaving together old and new, the dramatic intervention is a locus of circulation and an intuitive wayfinding device. The careful integration of stairs and smooth ramps also expands mobility through the building, while the stage-landings create opportunities for programming to the audience below. And while the three-level staircase speaks of Hariri’s poetic architectural language, its fluid form is sympathetic to all three generations of architecture around it, without succumbing to mimicry. It harmonizes the spaces around it by playing a new note.

OpenROM promises to be some project. Set to be completed in 2027 (with construction beginning immediately), it will remake some 8,000 square metres of the museum’s ground floor, while adding over 500 square metres of new gallery space. The project builds on a series of successful smaller interventions — all led by Hariri’s team — that followed the Crystal’s 2008 opening. On Bloor Street, a new landscape (completed in 2019) replaces a former concrete expanse with seating and greenery. In 2017, meanwhile, the museum’s 1933 entrance was restored to use, gradually knitting the institution into the urban fabric. OpenROM will be the next major step. But it won’t be the last, with Basseches and Hariri already hinting at further evolution. “We’re going to re-introduce the ROM to Toronto,” says Hariri. They’ve made a hell of a start.

Siamak Hariri Designs a Majestic New Face for Toronto’s ROM

A landmark gift by the Hennick Family Foundation spurs a re-imagining of the museum’s curatorial strategy – and architectural expression.

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