If These Walls Could Talk
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If These Walls Could Talk

The Institute for Contemporary Culture (ICC) at the ROM recently unveiled newly constructed walls in the Roloff Beny Gallery on the fourth floor of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. Nine brand new, soaring walls vary in height and angle to create a series of forms. Together, they produce a dialogue with the existing architecture and aim to enhance experiential variety for the visitor. The newly configured gallery space will launch on September 26 with the exhibition Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913–2008.
Since the completion of the Crystal in 2007, the ICC has been investing in new walls and configurations for each one of its exhibits. Siamak Hariri, partner at Hariri Pontarini Architects, felt the situation could be reversed with a strong design solution. When his firm was invited by Francisco Alvarez, managing director of the ICC, to propose walls for the Vanity Fair exhibit, Hariri seized the opportunity to create something more sustainable. He explained the design intention as “creating a semi-permanent solution that would both feel as if the space was still the amazing, sculptural phenomenon that it is, but at the same time, solve a practical problem” by reducing the required investment and subsequent waste of rebuilding the gallery’s display surfaces again and again.
In the absence of these walls, the Roloff Beny Gallery is a soaring, six thousand square-foot space, compared in scale to an airplane hangar by Paul Kozak, a member of HPA’s design team (and brother of Nick, a Torontoist staff photographer, who also took the photos above). Standard height walls would look completely out of scale in such a grand space, which is the reason for height of the new walls. “As you walk in, your eyes go up and up,” Kozak explains, “guiding you, showing you how big the space actually is.” The new walls give the space a scale in which one can appreciate Libeskind’s architecture in a new way.
The conceptual metaphor for the project is a series of icebergs floating within the Crystal. According to Kozak, the intention was to make it seem as if the new walls always existed within the Crystal, “as if they were part of the original design.” One of Hariri’s favourite parts of the design is the areas at which the walls come close to and even touch portions of the existing architecture, “accentuating points of compression and providing an intimacy to some of the spaces.” There are moments of tension, followed by expanses of relief. The smaller spaces can be used to subcategorize elements of a specific exhibition, while the larger area, to which the visitor always returns, acts as a buffer between these spaces. Hariri explains that there is the “sense that certain spaces are expansive and can take the floating skeletal forms that were part of the earlier exhibits, while others are more compressed” and can handle the posters that will comprise the Vanity Fair exhibit.
Along with providing intuitive way-finding through the exhibit, the design also aims to facilitate interaction between the exhibit, the architecture of the Crystal, and the design of the new walls. Hariri’s hope is that the walls will be reused and accommodate other shows with equal resilience.
All photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.