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article imageCrystal Clear: The Building Poised to Change Toronto’s Reputation in the Design World

By David Silverberg     May 31, 2007 in Travel
Some call it a masterpiece. Others call it too extravagant. Toronto is home to a piece of architecture already generating massive buzz. Learn about Daniel Libeskind’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal and how it can change the city’s design reputation.
Digital Journal — On a downtown Toronto street cluttered with fast-food joints, pubs and hotels, a building overlooks the curious onlookers. Eyes are cast upward to take in the full spectrum of an extension to the Royal Ontario Museum on Bloor Street. Light glints off the silver-clad crystalline structure jutting from the ROM’s east wing like angelic horns. It’s beautiful, unusual and ultimately flamboyant.
Scheduled to officially open on Saturday at midnight, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal comes from the powerful imagination of starchitect Daniel Libeskind. Part of the $270-million expansion of the ROM, the Crystal adds 175,000 square feet of exhibit space to Toronto’s venerable museum.
Many heritage buildings undergo renovations, so what’s so special about this piece of architecture? First, the Crystal was designed by Libeskind, a renowned architect whose stark signature style has graced structural wonders such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Wohl Centre in Tel Aviv. Second, the Crystal’s intricate design features steel beams with sloped glass, a complex structure without 90-degree angles to further add to its engineering inventiveness. Third, the Crystal is a sharp turn for Toronto architecture, which is usually been attacked for being bland and uninteresting. ROM chief executive William Thorsell recently said “this building will pave the way for more beautiful architecture.”
Also worth noting is the light pouring through the building, which should make the interior an ocean of sunshine. The Crystal is 30 per cent transparent, so pedestrians can view some of the new acquisitions the ROM will display in the area: a six-metre ichthyosaur that will be the main piece of a marine display of Mesozoic life, and an Egyptian mummy cover dated at 986 BC, among others.
When the Crystal opens to the public on Sunday, expect more than a fair share of criticism. Passers by on Bloor Street have gasped at the out-of-place look of the unusual design, while others will scoff at the expense of such an expansion. One critic poked fun at its shape, calling it “a pile of cubist dog doodle.”
Toronto is accustomed to this kind of backlash. As the Star notes:Over the years, [Toronto] has proved itself just as susceptible to the shock of the new as any community. When New City Hall was finished in 1965, no less an authority than Frank Lloyd Wright called it ‘sterile.’ Walter Gropius said it was ‘very poor.’ Now it is widely considered one of the finest structures in Toronto, and certainly one of the most beloved.Bound to face Crystal-like criticism is another famous architect’s baby project: Frank Gehry is redesigning a portion of the Art Gallery of Ontario, costing $195 million and opening in fall 2008. Two celeb architects in one city? Is this Toronto the Good or Toronto the Adventerous?
The Michel Lee-Chin Crystal in Toronto has been called a colossal gamble by the Royal Ontario Museum, one of Canada's premier cultural institutions. - Photo by Digital Journal
The press has decided the Crystal is a risk no matter how you look at it. The Globe and Mail reported the Crystal “promises to spur a renaissance within the ROM and throughout its urban environs — a colossal gamble by one of Canada’s premier cultural institutions.”
The Globe’s statement is reminiscent of another controversial building that attracted both praise and scorn in Toronto. The Sharp Centre at the Ontario College of Art and Design on McCaul Street was derided for its “flying tabletop” design, but the city later appreciated its originality. In fact, the Sharp Centre is the only eye-grabbing building in the area.
And like the Sharp Centre, the Crystal is regarded as the ultimate gamble for a city whose architectural reputation is staid at best.
This gamble beat out 51 other submissions submitted to Thorsell and the ROM. Thorsell told the Globe Libeskind’s vision impressed him, as well as the man behind the design. He’s a very eclectic guy. His subject matter ranges from literature to music to philosophy, ideas — bang, bang, bang. Some people find it a bit disorienting. I do not.
Michel Lee-Chin, a billionaire financier, donated $30 million (CDN) to the museum's expansion campaign, earning himself naming rights for the Libeskind-designed Crystal. - Photo by Digital Journal.
Libeskind’s method might also disorient employers. Although it sounds like an urban legend, the story of the Crystal’s origins is as real as Libeskin’s determination: he sketched the glass-and-aluminum design on 11 paper napkins FedExed from Berlin. How’s that for boldness?
It’s all well and good to have Libeskind on board, but the ROM needed truckloads of money to complete the three-year project requiring 3,500 tons of steel. Enter Michael Lee-Chin, real estate mogul and billionaire financier who donated $30 million to the ROM’s expansion campaign. The ROM also named the centre court after his mother, Gloria Hyacinth Chin.
Financially comfortable, the ROM is crossing its fingers the Lee-Chin Crystal will further elevate the museum to global acclaim. Even more critical is Toronto’s place on the architectural map; can the Crystal, and Libeskind’s star power, turn the city’s once drab reputation into an innovative hotspot of international design?
The answers to those questions will either turn the Crystal into a hero or degrade it to an extremely expensive failure.
For more photos of the building's interior, click here
More about Michael lee chin, Daniel libeskind, Toronto, Rom, Royal ontario museum
 
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