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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 (
Crystal Scatters No Light (The Globe And Mail)
Only Love Can Break Your Art (
Congrats Mr. Lee-Chin (Jamaica Gleaner)
Revamp ROM’s Mandate (Toronto Star)
Build it, and they will shun (Toronto Star)


  • Stephanie Hart

    Amazing photos!

  • Sean Galbraith

    Kudos on the media scoop. Beautiful photos indeed.

  • nate

    i enjoyed this article. good research.

  • aidan

    Blah blah… ugly. Design a building for humanoids.

  • Marc Lostracco

    I quite liked the tables in the Crystal Five café (pictured). I think they were metal, with a piece of bronze-yellow opaque polycarbonate over them. They reminded me a bit of the matte doubleshot plastic used in Zune MP3 players.
    I didn’t know what to expect when I went inside, but it was surprisingly subtle considering how the exterior looks, which is perfect for a museum. Obviously, the more interesting photos are of the more detailed areas of the empty place, but it’s surprisingly restrained considering the deconstructionist design. Everything is in slightly warm and neutral tones, which is great against the brick of the Heritage buildings.
    The first thing I thought of when I walked in was that everyone is going to be wanting to hold their events/weddings/parties there…it really lends itself to swanky soirées.
    The second floor will be the first to open, which is where the dinosaur and early mammal exhibits are to be located (two of the wall-mounted dinosaur skeletons are already in place).
    And there is still a LOT of work left to do.

  • Gloria

    Wow, I like it even more now. I love the corner of the original ROM building poking out.

  • Kevin

    Odd how they can raise more than a quarter of a billion dollars and yet can’t seem to find a loonie to reopen the McLaughlin Planetarium…

  • Marc Lostracco

    I believe the planetarium is now being used for storage! I loved that place…all the theatres in Toronto and nobody could think of anything for the poor McLaughlin.

  • will alsop

    It is great to see the ROM add a further great building to Toronto.
    It is evidence of a growing confidence in the city as it continues its progress toward world status

  • Amanda Buckiewicz

    I love it! Great photos, Marc.

  • David Wozney

    Re: “… the ROM will host Governor General Michaëlle Jean …
    The Governor General of Canada is a “corporation sole”, according to Elizabeth II in this document. A “corporation sole” is defined and recognized as being a corporation.
    It is a fiction that a corporation is a person.
    “A corporation is a fiction, by definition, …”, according to Patrick Healy in a statement found here.
    “A corporation is a ‘fiction’ as it has no separate existence, no physical body and no ‘mind’”, according to this presentation by Joanne Klineberg.

  • Meomee

    So amazing !

  • Marc Lostracco

    My favourite part of the photo above “What the Renovation Brings to the ROM” is the woman vacuuming in the display case. It’s almost like those anthropological exhibits with the models of cavemen.
    “In the early twenty-first century, humans used devices called ‘vacuums’ to collect dirt and debris from their households…”

  • Marc Lostracco

    The National Post has a great flythrough animation on the Crystal today.

  • chris

    a “corporation” is a legal entity with many of the same legal rights as a person based on a perverse interpretation of the 14th amendment of the American Constitution. this was done during a supreme court ruling int he 19th century (i have forgotten the case although it should be easy to find)

  • rek

    It’s so… bleak. The track lighting depresses me too.

  • Carl

    It does nothing to enhance the original structure, which was a beautiful building. It covers it up like it’s ashamed, and it makes bold futuristic statements that seem to shun away the history inherent in the original structure. That is not the mood you want to convey in a museum, which is supposed to uncover and welcome the past, not plaster it up behind futuristic walls.

  • chris

    umm, carl, the rest of the museum is still there…

  • Marc Lostracco

    Almost all of the original 1914 building is as visible as it was before the Crystal was built. The ROM’s been through a few renos already, each of which did little to “enhance” the original structure.

  • geokatgirl

    just to clarify (as i am in the know) the planetarium HAD to close because they were no longer making shows in the format that was compatible with that camera. Without a HUGE injection of capital (you have to had seen the seats in that place, all those laser shows were not kind to the furniture)
    So they could no longer purchase new star shows, the place was losing money every year, and the collections needed more space.

  • Andrew

    This building is ugly. It doesn’t look at all right next to the old building. It probably would have looked better if it were a completely new building.

  • Ken Hamel

    The photos are striking, but as we have seen in Denver, the building does not look well suited to maximizing the enjoyment of the artwork, from either a quantity (number of pieces that can be accommodated) or quality (pieces unencumbered by special mounting structures as well as a nausea-free experience) standpoint.
    Ken Hamel

  • Marc Lostracco

    The wider shots I took weren’t as interesting as the quirky Libeskind details so I didn’t publish them, but the spaces are much larger than they look in the photos. I went into the building not sure if I was going to like it, but I came out loving it, and a large part of that was that it was restrained inside, considering the extreme design. It’s a lot more subtle than it seems.
    The spaces are huge and all very open—a lot of the large spaces can be split into open-concept sub galleries, especially the basement gallery that’s shown in the photo with the woman vacuuming in the display case. The floor materials make the spaces relatively quiet.
    Dinosaurs and ancient mammals will be on the second floor (photo above the “What the New ROM Means for Toronto” title), which is the area facing the street with the largest expanses of windows, and I actually thought the criscrossing visible skeleton elements of the structure will complement the open dinosaur skeletons, and having natural light in an exhibit like this is unusual and interesting. Some of the specimens will be visible on street level through the windows, allegedly, which is also kinda cool.
    Pretty much most of the concerns I had with the building went away once I saw it…it looks quite different in person and the inside is much less audacious than the outside. I also wasn’t too sure how I felt about the exterior aluminum cladding, but it’s growing on me a bit, and now that the construction hoarding has been removed from Bloor Street and the forecourt has been opened up, it’s a remarkable piece of architecture to stand in front of. The thing just looms.
    I should also mention that the old Historic building looks the same inside, if not even spruced-up a bit, so purists can perhaps breath slightly easier. The integration from the old into the new seems to work pretty well, although the main entrance was actually smaller and more cramped than I expected (bottom photo). It opens into the large atrium with the skylights, but it’s not immediately open. I wonder how large school groups are going to organize themselves.
    It should also be noted that the quality of workmanship is top-notch, especially considering how difficult it would have been to drywall extreme angles and all the nooks and crannies. It’s going to be an interesting exercise keeping the white walls clean—so many places where people will have their grimy little hands, especially on sloping walls where people will lean over to look down.
    We weren’t allowed in one area that I was dying to see because of the construction, which was the criss-crossing catwalks atrium; a Libeskind signature. The walkways are floored in open metal grating, so spectators can look all the way up or down the impressive space where the crystals meet.
    There were some areas where the artifacts were already being installed, and there seemed to be a good integration into the designs with new, freestanding and sunken wall display cases. I’m curious to see it when it’s full of artifacts and people.

  • Kevin

    Whoever told you that planetarium shows were no longer being produced in the right format is lying or greatly mistaken – I know as I run a planetarium. Besides they closed this planetarium in 1995 and there were no format issues at that time. True renovating the planetarium now would be expensive, but seems like the organization is awash in cash.
    As far as making money goes – educational organizations are supposed to be educating visitors not generating revenue. Libraries and schools don’t make money either – should they be shut down as well?

  • Marc

    Bahhhhhh, another piece of skewed irregular diagonal boxes put together in a very unorderly fashion…. wow, very creative mr. Libeskind(sic).
    I especially dislike the diagonal openings which you can also see at the Berlin jewish museum, one of the least impresive “High profile buildings” I’ve seen in my little life. Poor Toronto….

  • Dave

    I will have to see it for myself before I really decide if I hate it or not. I never liked the model or the concept when the winner of the expansion was announced, I thought the Crystal looked out of place ( which is probably what the designer wanted) , museums are about the past not the future, the Crystal is too modern – that’s how I feel about it, maby the contrast between the old and new is interesting but I dont think angles and angles and more angles are soothing or appealing as a space to house artifacts, the Crystal reminds me of a set from a 1970′s sci fi movie, Logans Run, Buck Rogers, Star Wars even… sure its cool but so far I’m not that convinced. I would have done something large but with more glass and stone and metal with curves instead of sharp angles, a kind of traditional space with modern materials, perhaps with several high atriums seperating different exhibits, sure its not as radical as the Crystal but we’ll see how the Crystal holds out, however I’m pretty sure it will be impressive in the end and I’m still going to join regardless :) See u there.

  • Eilleen

    In response to the Planetarium tangent. I am “in the know” as well. The Planetarium didn’t have to close, the ROM wanted it closed. Furthermore the planetarium shows were done using a Zeiss projector, not a camera. The Zeiss was a incredible piece of optics and it was NOT “out of date”. I think the city has been greatly misinformed (or completely uninformed) about the reasons for closing the Planetarium.
    The ROM looks terrible now, is this the price we have to pay to attract more tourism? A huge ugly metal building hanging over Bloor.

  • Manuel

    Kevin: The Planetarium was losing money and had to be closed. We had not enough visitors to justify the huge amounts of money needed to run the planetarium. Renovating is cheap compared to the cost of running things.
    Otherwise, who told you that we cannot make revenue? we need to pay for stuff, curators, staff, et cetera. What we non-profits cannot make is profits, not revenue. We are not a federal funded museum, and we are not funded as the libraries or schools. You can see on our website where all the money come from, BTW, only 21% comes from paid admissions.
    The planetarium is now used as staff offices.

  • Giovanni

    The ROM crystal is exhilarating … I stood in those spaces and watched something unusual – adults and children excited while interacting with architecture. We stood mesmerized in empty spaces – that says alot. Most of the complaints posted here seem to be based on ignorance – does anyone remember how awful the old terrace galleries were? The countless bridges that led to locked doors, the dark corners that seemed to have been forgotten for ages … these have thankfully been removed though not entirely – we still have to deal with the horrendous pile of concrete filled in on the south side of the building.
    As far as the planetarium goes, if you’ve got the courage to find out what someone from out of town thinks when they look at it you might not like what you hear. Not only does it not “fit in” but it looks like an incomplete afterthought …. where are those bulldozers? The ugly terrace galleries that the crytal replaces covered up most of the original building on that side, the new structure actually pulls back and reveals it – which is nice, but are any of you nostaligic complainers able to acknowledge how bland and lacklustre that portion of the structure is? Let’s just say it’s not in any textbooks, nor will it make its way onto any postcards.
    Furthermore, your protestations about the crystal being too futuristic are naive, do you really think that this qualifies as radical to the rest of the world? Wake up out of your Toronto slumber! Libeskind’s ROM uses shapes and forms that have been around for an eternity (can you say that about your sacred cube?), he’s created an image of shifting forms and spaces that’s entirely appropriate for a museum dedicated to history because that’s what it is – consistently changing and evolving, fragmented, and incomplete.

  • Walter

    Since I was a kid I’ve been hearing that the contents is more important than the look of the container, but in this market society where culture is a commodity to be sold and to have a profit from it, it’s understandable that this out of the ordinary building has to be there to attract people (tourists?). The culture?… very well, thanks.
    PS. Maybe we could attract people to an extravagant new planetarium building without the need for new seats or projectors.

  • Lifetimer

    Your photos are great and in fact make the rooms look better than they do in person. I visited this past Saturday and was crushingly disappointed by the Crystal’s interior. Particularly the lack of an impressive, engaging central entry point or gathering place. The interior court area just seems like a big empty awkward space.

  • John H.

    Architectural left-overs
    Libeskind’s building is just pretentious architecture for low-brow poseurs. Just because it is unusual, and slightly more upmarket than a double-wide trailer doesn’t make it architecture. I feel sorry for Toronto. They bought the nonsense that was originally intended to mess up London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Not only did they waste money on it, they will have to waste more in five years when they realize it is a mistake. Hard Luck Toronto. you lose again.

  • Cloverbell

    I still can’t believe that there are so many negative remarks made about this building.
    Yes it’s an eye-sore to some people, a beauty to others.
    What’s more important is that this crystal (and many other projects) pushes all the boundaries and breaks all the rules and makes Toronto less typical, less normal and more dynamic, more unusual and more of a welcoming artistic community.
    Take a look at OCAD, take a look at the AGO.
    Far from normal.
    Normal, boring, cheesy, safe, un-enthusiastic architecture would never be memorable.
    We would never move forward to advance ourselves if we did not come out of our comfort zones. Shock a few people, did things that would be considered “impossible.”
    People may hate the crystal now but maybe 10 or 20 years later we may look upon it differently.
    At least this structure will be memorable for the way it was created bottom up.
    I’d say Toronto would be at a loss if nothing special or different happened at all.
    I’m not in love with the way the Crystal looks but I’m in love with what has been accomplished. I’m bewildered by what creative minds can do. =D
    In my humble opinion.

  • SLM

    nice day

  • Kevin

    Back to the planetarium issue:
    “We had not enough visitors to justify the huge amounts of money needed to run the planetarium. Renovating is cheap compared to the cost of running things.”
    Again that’s wrong. *Thousands* of planetariums all over the world operate with some of the same problems as yours. Making up fictions about how much it cost to operate them does no good.
    And please do not patronize me. I’ve worked for a nonprofit organization for 20 years. You miss my point – and this makes it clear that small-mindedness and lack of vision was the only reasons the planetarium was closed, not financial.
    “The planetarium is now used as staff offices.”
    When you cannibalize your own flesh to survive – you won’t.

  • Vincent Clement

    Kevin said “Libraries and schools don’t make money either – should they be shut down as well?”
    Perhaps they should be. At the very least the majority of users should be satisfied with the services provided by a library and school.

  • David Topping