In Defense of the Crystal, by Michael Boughn
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In Defense of the Crystal, by Michael Boughn


Stairs inside the ROM (top) and the AGO (bottom).

It crashed into Bloor Street more than three years ago, but the Royal Ontario Museum’s Crystal is no less controversial than when it was unveiled. Now, on the eve of the retirement of William Thorsell, writer Michael Boughn reconsiders the jagged, jutting structure that—for better or worse—serves as the outgoing ROM director and CEO’s legacy.

As the two big Toronto renovation projects of the decade—Frank Gehry’s renovation of the AGO and Daniel Libeskind’s of the ROM—continue to square off and duke it out for pride of place in Toronto’s architectural renaissance, the match increasingly seems to be going to the homeboy. Gehry’s transformation of the AGO has been by anyone’s measure a roaring success. It is impossible to find a negative word about the lyrical metamorphosis of the stodgy old Art Gallery of Ontario. “Gentle,” “self-possessed,” “masterly,” “supple,” “stunning,” and “enchanting” are just a few of the accolades awarded Gehry. Unless you consider the word “modest” (as in a “modest masterpiece”) to be negative, the judgment is unequivocal.
Libeskind’s contribution to the new Toronto, on the other hand, has been pummeled against the ropes.

Although Condé Nast Traveller listed the Crystal as one of the seven new wonders of the architectural world, most critics have demurred, to put it politely. In response to Condé Nast, Toronto architect Thomas Payne called the Crystal “the commodification of architecture.” Other critics were even less kind. The epithets that piled up against the jagged eruption on Bloor Street included “ugly,” “useless,” “irrational,” “baffling,” “grandstanding,” “dead,” “histrionic,” “amok” (as in “run amok,” a phrase usually reserved for invading Vikings or Montreal Canadiens fans), and from Toronto’s own Lisa Rochon, “the building most likely to come down in the next twenty years.” (Ironically, Gehry’s building experienced the same problems with moisture direly predicted for the ROM.) The contrast is fascinating and complicated.
Architects seem to have three main criticisms of Libeskind’s building, some of which are echoed in negative popular responses. Libeskind has been accused of violating certain technical necessities having to do with the uses of stairs and so on—concerns of interest to architects but not so much to the rest of us. He has also been condemned for repackaging design elements. Most frequently, architects will point out the similarities between the Crystal and Libeskind’s new Denver museum, with a footnote reference to the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Crystals all, they say. This is posed as an aesthetic problem, a lack of originality. It is also suggested, even by those like Thomas Payne who praise it, that Libeskind is simply marketing a commodity (as if “novelty” wasn’t the beating heart of commodity culture) rather than building structures that, as they like to say, respond to their context. Perhaps most damning is the criticism that the new spaces are impossible to display things in.
A number of questions come to mind in the face of these seemingly universal criticisms. For instance, are Gehry’s curvilinear designs any less composed of signature elements than Libeskind’s angular crystals? Why are his ubiquitous curves okay when Libeskind’s crystalline angles are suspect? Is it easier to identify an angle than a curve? Or is it just easier to like Gehry’s intense lyricism than Libeskind pointed anti-lyricism because it’s less, say, grating, or even, possibly, challenging? And what does it mean to raise the issue of something called “originality” at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a hundred years after Marcel Duchamp, among many others, decisively put the boots to it? And, assuming it wasn’t sheer incompetence, why would someone design such odd and difficult spaces? There are no unequivocal answers to these questions, but the fact that no one is asking them points to a deeper problem in the discussion of the relative merits of the buildings—that in the rush to judgment, no one seems very curious about what Libeskind is actually up to.
No one, for instance, has bothered to ask what a museum is and what it does, other than display things.

Looking up inside the ROM (top) and the AGO (bottom).

Everyone seems quite satisfied to sail along under the assumption that the museum is a benign and salutary cultural institution, kind of like public libraries and big, green parks. We take our families on Sunday to have fun in the bat cave (finally reinstated at the ROM, thank goodness) and the dinosaur hall, and, more importantly, to expose them to culture. By “culture,” we mean the history of civilization as it is embodied in the organized collections of art, artifacts, and specimens that are displayed for our universal edification.
But the museum, like everything else in the world, has a history, and, whatever else it is, it is not innocent. We may prefer to ignore that history, given its roots in what we now see as our unsavory colonial past. Libeskind, on the other hand, seems to think it is important to draw attention to it.
Most obvious is his inclusion of curiosity cabinets in the walls of the grand stairway. The museum as we know it arose out of similar curiosity cabinets—the collections of royalty and wealthy men in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Those private collections were made available only to a few privileged people, and were grounded on a notion of a world made up of singular wonders. The museum transformed those private collections of singular wonders into public collections of representative specimens, a change that marked the rise of our modern world.
The British Museum, one of the world’s first great museums, was established in 1753. Rather than displaying singular curiosities, the museum displayed objects arranged according to scientific taxonomies and hierarchies of knowledge. The world was changing rapidly in the eighteenth century. The whole idea of something called “the public” (as opposed to something called “the peasantry” or “the aristocracy”) was new, working its way into the culture, giving birth to new institutions and modes of life meant to serve it and contain it. Six years after opening, these displays were eventually presented for the edification of this new “public.”
What the public saw was the loot brought back from Europe’s colonial adventures. It was stored, studied, and displayed in the museum. The “Elgin” marbles, Zulu ritual drums, Egyptian Third Kingdom funerary urns, unknown species of beetles and butterflies, Kwakiutl baskets: all of it was part of an immense harvesting of the world. As to what to do with the harvest, another new institution—science—had the answer: box it. Egypt over there in that box, Greece over here in a different box, the past in boxes of chronological order. Boxes of the primitive, boxes of the ancient, boxes of the contemporary, all laid out to demonstrate the progression of one to the next. Boxes of fossils, boxes of butterflies, boxes of watches—time itself contained in a box.
There were boxes called display cases, bigger boxes called rooms, and even bigger boxes called wings. Even more important were the boxes of knowledge that located the objects in meaningful relations within these spatial boxes. Boxes within boxes within boxes. “The birth of the museum,” historian Tony Bennett points out, “was coincident with, and supplied a primary institutional condition for, the emergence of a new set of knowledge—geology, biology, archeology, anthropology, history, and art history.” Each of those new knowledges was displayed as a box in relation to other boxes, and the result was a totalized knowledge of the world that was contained within the precincts of the museum, which stood at the pinnacle of the process.
In that sense, the museum became material proof of the superiority of European culture, its treasure house, at the moment it literally possessed the world, contained it. The new architectures of display presented these materials flayed, pinned, and lined up in orderly presentations in rectilinear spaces that encoded significances beyond the mere visible objects. The physical orders of the halls and the cases they contained revealed the order of nature, the order of human progress, the order of knowledge that was fundamental to the emerging culture of modernity. Grouping artifacts according to nations and national schools displayed not only the artifacts, but “nation-ness” itself, as if it were “natural.” Displaying artifacts in terms of the progress of humanity, from primitive to civilized, naturalized “progress” as a given fact—as well as located its pinnacle in the culture that collected and interpreted the artifacts and created the display before which the spectator stood.

Outside the ROM (top) and the AGO (bottom).

One thing Libeskind’s building does, then, and does with real zest, is explode out of the smugness of this cultural configuration. It explodes onto Bloor Street—talk about responding to your context. Many people express discomfort with this architectural assertion, but perhaps they are supposed to feel discomfort. At the very least it disrupts—I would say enlivens—what always seemed one of the most pretentious, undistinguished, nineteenth-century colonial corners in Toronto. Between the old Anglican church, the “grand” Hyatt hotel, the neo-classical Department of Household Sciences (where women in the University of Toronto learned how to clarify soup and other subjects “related to their role”—now an upscale clothing store), and the undistinguished beaux-arts façade of the museum, Bloor and Avenue roads exuded the colonial complacency associated with Orange parades and dry Sundays.
Throughout his renovation, Libeskind stripped off the surfaces that hid the museum’s history beneath the appearance of some fictional, unassailable totality. The curiosity cabinets are one such gesture. Another is the revelation of the seams where various other renovations joined the original building over the years. The illusion of a single, seamless, monumental structure is gone. More important, however, is the way he explodes the complacency of the interior spaces. Michel Serres, the French philosopher of science, has suggested that we need to start thinking of knowledge in terms of sacks rather than boxes. Libeskind may not go quite that far, but there is nary a box to be found in his new spaces.
This refusal of the Crystal’s galleries to succumb to the old museum’s demand for manageable space—space that can easily be integrated into hidden taxonomies, categorizations, and hierarchies of knowledge—is in fact its most important contribution. As the presenter of culture, the museum is not some neutral container. Its mode of presentation is absolutely complicit in a hidden affirmation of European modernity’s organization of the world. The resistance implicit in the Crystal’s spaces may very well have as much to do with the Holocaust as the Berlin museum does, given the way modernity’s modes of thinking were used to enable that horror, and goes some way toward revealing the nature of the “one project” Libeskind says he is working on. Those spaces are a constant reminder that the world cannot be neatly contained in the museum—or anywhere else. In that sense, they will continue to recall us to the often uncomfortable, indigestible complexity of the world that too often we would prefer to ignore.
Michael Boughn is a writer who lives in Toronto. Cosmographia: a post-Lucretian faux micro-epic is forthcoming from Book Thug in November. His first mystery novel, Business As Usual, will be published by NeWest Press in 2011. He has been teaching courses in American and post-modern literature at U of T since 1993.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.