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Inside The ROM Crystal: A First Look

The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum
We’ve been watching the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal forming around the ROM since construction began in May of 2003, and now Torontoist is pleased to be the first media outlet to bring you photos of the nearly-finished interior. Read-on to see if all the fuss was worth it and to learn more about this extraordinary building.


The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum

The Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum was opened in March of 1914 and is an agency of the Province of Ontario, operated by the University of Toronto until 1955. Canada’s largest museum and the fifth largest in North America, the ROM boasts more than six million objects in its collection. Wide-eyed children may tell you that the museum is haunted by the nightshirt-wearing ghost of its first curator, archaeologist Charles Trick Currelly.
In the summer of 2001, the ROM launched an international search for an architect to expand and renovate the site as part of the Renaissance ROM project. About three months later and with 50 entrants, twelve international architects were chosen to pitch, narrowing down to three by December (Italy’s Andrea Bruno, Polish-born American Daniel Libeskind and Chinese-Canadian Bing Thom). In February, Daniel Libeskind was awarded the Lead Architect position for the ROM’s expansion, which would be based on a deconstructionist crystal-like design he sketched on a napkin during a family wedding at the ROM. Perhaps in a bit of romantic embellishment, Libeskind claimed the idea was inspired by the Museum’s gem and mineral collection, though the multifaceted design has already been seen in many of his other structures like the Denver Art Museum and Hong Kong’s Creative Media Centre.
The museum is no stranger to expansion. In 1933, a new wing and façade were installed, including the remarkable mosaic rotunda, but requiring the demolition of Argyle House. A second expansion phase saw the construction of the McLaughlin Planetarium (1964), a glass atrium (1975) and the Terrace Galleries facing Bloor Street (1984). The planetarium is now closed and the Terrace Galleries were demolished to make way for Libeskind’s Crystal.

The Architect

Architect Daniel Libeskind (Photo by Marc Lostracco)
61-year-old Daniel Libeskind is currently best known for his World Trade Center Freedom Tower reconstruction plans for New York and the acclaimed Jewish Museum in Berlin. His upcoming Jewish War Veterans’ Memorial, dubbed Flames of Memory, is also scheduled for construction in Earl Bales Park near Bathurst and Sheppard, and he has designed the notorious “boot” building that is to be built above the Hummingbird Centre. Libeskind has also held the position of the Frank O. Gehry Chair at the University of Toronto and received an honourary doctorate from the university in 2004. The ties to Toronto run even deeper: his wife, Nina, is a Torontonian and one of their sons was born here.
Daniel Libeskind's Spirit House ChairSpeaking of chairs, Libeskind just unveiled his $12,000 stainless steel Spirit House chair, following in the footsteps of architects Mies van der Rohe (the Barcelona Chair), Frank Lloyd Wright (the Barrel Chair) and Rennie Mackintosh (the Hill House Chair), who all designed famous pieces of furniture. The Spirit House chairs are reminiscent of the ROM’s Crystal and will be located in the central atrium.
Libeskind is well aware of the controversy behind the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. “Yes, this building is ambitious,” he said today, “but Toronto deserves nothing but an ambitious building.”
Even Michael Lee-Chin wasn’t entirely on-board with Libeskind’s concept at first. “Initially, when I saw the design, I was most reticent,” Chin says, but spending time with the architect convinced him. “It is a building that will inspire other architects to go further.”
The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum
The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum

The Structure

Both loathed and loved by Torontonians, yet possessing an undeniably unique identity, the steel, aluminum and glass Crystal rises ten storeys high (37 metres) and the tip of the Crystal hangs over the sidewalk about nine storeys up. There is to be a sidewalk marker inlay at the precise point of the tip of the Crystal above. The base of the Crystal is ten metres below grade, and there are no right angles to the structure. The only vertical wall in the interior is the south wall of the breathtaking Spirit House, which is the space formed by the intersection of the east and west crystals and crisscrossed by bridges.
Consisting of five interlocking and self-supporting crystalline shapes, 25% of the exterior is glass (there are 52 windows), while the rest is three layers of aluminum cladding, giving it a brushed metal, corrugated appearance. The skeleton of the Crystal required 3,175 tonnes of steel and 9,000 cubic metres of poured concrete, and except for two bridges, the Crystal is not attached to the original ROM buildings, which allows the structure to move slightly.
Because of the Crystal’s strange shape, construction posed certain challenges. New construction methods had to be designed to accommodate its complexity, including having to train workers on rappelling the extreme slopes and angles.
The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum
The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum

What the Renovation Brings to the ROM

The Renaissance ROM project brings a public space increase of 25% to a total of 36,000 square metres (388,000 square feet). The added volume will allow for nearly double the amount of objects to display, and the final construction phase is scheduled for completion in 2009, with the renovation of the galleries in the Historic buildings.
The Lee-Chin Crystal Galleries will house the ROM’s famous dinosaur and mammal exhibits, as well as the South Asian, African/Americas/Asia Pacific and Middle East galleries. The collection of Textiles and Costume will also be displayed here. The final phase will see ten new galleries installed in the Historic buildings by 2009. This will be the first time in the ROM’s history where all the major collections will be housed in their own galleries.
The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum
The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum
The Crystal itself cost $135 million to build (not including gallery installation costs), and the Museum still needs to raise another $50 million to complete the Renaissance ROM plan, which is now ringing-up at $270 million. The Crystal is named for Toronto business mogul Michael Lee-Chin, who donated $30 million to the construction. Another $42 million was received for the entire project from the Government of Ontario and $30 million more from the federal government. In March 2004, the Hon. Hilary and Galen Weston gifted $20 million, and Robert Shad and Teck Cominco donated $12 million and $10 million, respectively, and the facility just received some last-minute financial relief from Peter and Melanie Munk ($2 million) and investment executive Alfred Wirth ($2.5 million), who challenged others to match his donation (two members of the ROM’s Board did.
About $30 million of the project’s budget went to financing and fundraising expenses.
With so much money to raise, the ROM hit a bad note with many Torontonians by planning to demolish the McLaughlin Planetarium and build luxury condominiums overlooking Queens Park. The plan would have netted the ROM $20 million, but was criticized for being inappropriate to the surrounding relatively low-rise neighbourhood and was scrapped at the end of 2005.
The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum
The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum

What the New ROM Means for Toronto

Toronto is finally waking up to the importance of investing in innovative architecture. Years ago, we wouldn’t have expected to have large projects by Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Will Alsop and being built simultaneously, and now some much needed attention is being drawn to Toronto’s development. An interesting by-product of Toronto’s sudden interest in audacious architecture is that it gets the general public talking about buildings and neighbourhoods—a subject where Torontonians have never been particularly cohesive or informed.
The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum

The Public Opening

This Saturday, the ROM will host Governor General Michaëlle Jean as she participates in the architectural opening and building dedication of the Crystal. The ROM is also part of this year’s Luminato festival, and many local residents have been watching the nighttime preparations over this week with interest. Saturday’s event will begin at 8 p.m. include a 75-minute concert on three stages, ending with a light show across the façade. Hosted by actor Paul Gross, the opening will include performances by Deborah Cox, K’naan, Natalie McMaster, opera star Isabel Bayrakdarian and composer David Foster. David Suzuki, Michael Lee-Chin and Daniel Libeskind will also be speaking.
The free, standing room only concert takes place on the ROM Plaza in front of the Crystal, but a video screen will also broadcast the festivities in the Philosophers’ Walk area.
Until June 10, the public will have a unique opportunity to see most of the new, empty spaces before the permanent exhibits are installed. Free admission following the concert through to 6 p.m. the following day will be organized via timed tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. These tickets will start being allocated at noon on Saturday, and will be available at the south Loblaws entrance (limit two per adult).
Architect Daniel Libeskind
The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum
All photos by Marc Lostracco
More recommended reading:
The Dream Life of Toronto (AndrewBlum.net)
Crystal Scatters No Light (The Globe And Mail)
Only Love Can Break Your Art (Rabble.ca)
Congrats Mr. Lee-Chin (Jamaica Gleaner)
Revamp ROM’s Mandate (Toronto Star)
Build it, and they will shun (Toronto Star)

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