Welcome back to the Royal Ontario Museum
The building's 1933 entrance has been revamped and reopened in a modest but symbolic architectural move
"THE ARTS OF MAN THROUGH ALL THE YEARS." That's what a limestone carving on the façade of the Royal Ontario Museum promises to visitors, and now you can walk right up, put your hands on that stone and then walk in to see for yourself: The 1933 entrance to the museum, closed for a decade, is open again.
The museum cut the ribbon Tuesday on what it's calling the Weston Entrance, defined by a grand exterior stair, ramp and new doors. A light snow fell on the steps of pale limestone, where it was melted away by built-in heating coils; the bronze handrails shimmered under visitors' hands in the even winter light. And a crowd of people spilled up the stairs from the grand street of Queen's Park Crescent and into the institution.
It's a modest architectural move, but symbolic: A decade after the encyclopedic museum tried to turn itself into a icon, with a $300-million renovation and addition by architect Daniel Libeskind, it's now turning its attention back to its other front façade: the 1933 wing, designed in grand Romanesque style by architects Chapman and Oxley.
Overseen by Siamak Hariri of Hariri Pontarini Architects, the change includes a broad exterior staircase and ramp, along with a new plaza nearby. The materials are different from, but highly complementary to, the sandstone and limestone of the 1933 façade.
"It says something about connection, about inclusion, and about access," says the museum's chief executive officer, Josh Basseches. "If 2007 was a very important moment for a substantial gesture, it may be that 2017 is about taking advantage of the exceptional facility we have as a platform for engagement."
It's tempting to read this as a cautionary tale. Libeskind's Michael Lee-Chin Crystal exemplified the "starchitect" buildings of the aughts, in that an architect was allowed freedom to pursue an idiosyncratic personal vision and turn the building into an attraction.
There is a grain of truth to this. Libeskind is a serious thinker and in the right circumstances – as at Ottawa's National Holocaust Monument – can produce fine architecture. But he won the ROM commission before he had completed many buildings and the entry sequence through the Crystal is mazy and unfriendly. In an interview for a book about the ROM, Libeskind talked about his role as "a choreographer of experiences … How do the visitors come in the door, buy a ticket, check their coats, buy coffee and so on." In this case, he proved himself a clumsy choreographer.
The museum now aims to fix this. The stair is the first stage of what the ROM calls the Welcome Project, a promised revamp of its lobby, adjoining spaces and the landscape around the building. The museum won't divulge details yet, but Basseches says to "expect two announcements in the first quarter of 2018."
"Museums have to change with the times we live in," Basseches says. "And I think where we want to be headed is where this feels like the city's living room. People can easily make their way in and out – they can see in and out – and make a connection."
The Weston Entrance provides a useful balance to the showiness of the Crystal, which bursts between the museum's 1914 and 1933 wings to tower unmissably over Bloor Street. But if Libeskind's jagged forms provide a useful provocation, they're only part of the ensemble.
In fact, the ROM should really be read as an ensemble. Important buildings such as this reflect the ambitions and ideas of the times. The original 1914 west wing was designed by Darling and Pearson – then Canada's premier architects – in a very graceful Romanesque/Venetian pastiche. Chapman and Oxley's east wing is faced in a version of the Romanesque style, already old-fashioned by then, with ornament that's very much art deco; carved ornaments above the door represents Canada with a totem pole, a tepee and a buffalo, opposite an Old World obelisk and pyramid.
Now, all that looks very fresh – in conversation with Libeskind's crystal and Hariri's gentle addition. A century's worth of design ideas and high-culture aspirations are captured in their juxtaposition.
Then you walk inside to the rotunda and look up, to see an incredible set of mosaics that depict the evolution of art and culture. These were executed – and to some extent also designed – by Italian-Canadian craftsmen who brought expertise in mosaic work with them to Canada.
Ciro Mora and Antonio Bertuzzo oversaw the project for the Connolly Marble, Mosaic and Tile Company, displaying the results of their training in their home region of Friuli. (University of Toronto professor emerita Olga Pugliese traced this history in a fascinating 2004 paper.) Their work – the Inca god of thunder, Romulus and Remus, the lion of St. Mark – shimmered in a new light.
Layers of history and art through the ages: What else should a grand museum be about?