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The ROM is finally recognizing its Crystal entrance’s flaws with its ‘Welcome Project’

opinion

CRYSTAL CLEARer

With its 'Welcome Project,' the Royal Ontario Museum is subtly, finally acknowledging its Crystal centerpiece is flawed

The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum opened in 2007.

The Crystal is flawed. The Royal Ontario Museum doesn't want to put it that way, but that is the message of what it calls the "Welcome Project": Its architectural transformation of a decade ago, which was meant to revive the Toronto institution, doesn't work as it should.

That message was hidden in a piece of news this week from Canada's most-visited museum. It plans to reopen the entrance in its 1932 wing, add a new ramp and broader stair, and reconfigure the rotunda inside as a lobby once again.

A small step, but it's an appetizer for larger plans that include new plazas, an outdoor amphitheatre and renovations to the current lobby.

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It's good news for residents and visitors to Toronto: The region's most popular and most democratic museum will be a more pleasant place to visit.

And it reflects a new focus for architecture in institutions such as this: not in making showpieces, but on the nuts and bolts of making places that work.

To fix itself, the museum has to alter architect Daniel Libeskind's distinctive wing, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, which opened only in 2007. Why?

"I am very committed to making the museum as accessible and porous as possible," museum CEO Joshua Basseches says, "and making it easy for people to come and go."

For now, the museum has revealed a design by Hariri Pontarini Architects to remake its old main entrance, which faces east onto broad Queen's Park and a subway station. "We are literally and metaphorically throwing the doors open," Basseches says.

So far, there isn't much to see. "Our approach, for things like this, is very quiet and deferential," says the architect Siamak Hariri, who certainly knows how to make formally bold architecture but whose work emphasizes craft and materials. "It should feel like it's always been there."

In the project, which begins construction soon, new bronze-and-glass doors will bring views into the museum, and a widened stair and landing in limestone, a new curved access ramp and beech hedges will polish up the venerable building's street presence.

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The ROM’s Weston Entrance on Queens Park rendered in watercolour by Michael McCann Associates Ltd.

The entrance – to be paid for with $1.5-million in provincial funding and an undisclosed donation from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation – is slated to open in September.

"Hopefully," Hariri explains, "the whole thing says, 'Come on in.'"

This reflects a profound shift in museum design, which began soon after the ROM opened its addition, a major component of the $270-million Renaissance ROM project, in 2007. Galleries and museums have begun to think of themselves more as civic spaces, focusing on outreach and attracting a wider range of visitors for various purposes. Basseches's approach is in this line: "We'll be announcing additional steps to make more of the museum accessible and free," he says. My goal is "to make as much of the first floor as possible open without a ticket." The question, Basseches says, is this: "How do you make the experience of a museum like the ROM as welcoming as possible?"

A decade ago, the desired message wasn't welcome; it was "wow".

The fever began with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The opening of that Frank Gehry-designed art museum in 1997 helped transform a fading industrial city in Spain's Basque region into an unlikely cultural destination.

The gallery's charming composition – its flowing façade wrapped in iridescent titanium skin – stood like a well-set jewel in Bilbao's buff streetscape. For millions around the world, it was a thing to be seen and admired in glossy magazines. You could recognize its shape in an instant. The New York Times's architecture critic Herbert Muschamp called it, in a 5,000-word paean, "the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe."

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That quality – a building that reads as a singular aesthetic object – became the takeaway, and the problems began at the ROM early on. Libeskind was one of 12 finalists in a competition to expand and renovate the building. In a 2001 show, Libeskind's display was "the cheekiest," The Globe and Mail's James Adams reported: "His sketches are black pastel or ink drawings done on paper napkins taken from the swank Jamie Kennedy restaurant in the ROM. Mr. Libeskind's conception is also the most angular and asymmetrical, featuring a zigzagging spine running north to south, triangular interior spaces and a diagonally oriented entrance."

Angles and negative space photographed in the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum, on Feb. 18, 2015.

The napkin sketch became a crucial part of the museum's fundraising and marketing campaign, and the Crystal was built out more or less in keeping with that vision.

As sculpture, it worked. The outer façade, with the aluminum-and-glass crystal bursting out of the brick and limestone of the museum's two older wings, is an arresting spectacle. Today, Basseches makes a forceful argument for the design. "I feel the Libeskind-designed Crystal very much succeeded in its most important initiative, which was to make it clear that the ROM is a contemporary institution engaging with the street … engaging with contemporary issues relevant in people's lives, and it very much succeeded in this regard," he says.

Where it didn't succeed was in the nuts and bolts. Libeskind, a career academic who had recently begun a rapid ascent to stardom, didn't have the practical experience or the staff (or perhaps the interest) to work out the logistics; in partnership with Toronto's Bregman + Hamann Architects, his office designed a dramatic but confusing entry sequence.

You entered by opening heavy doors (now replaced by automatic sliders straight out of a big-box store) on Bloor Street; you arrived in a tall and dramatic atrium, with admission in front of you, coat check to the left and a symbolic but empty chamber to your right. It's often crowded, often uncomfortable.

Although the museum's attendance still hasn't reached the projected 1.5 million a year – last year's 1.35 million visitors was a record – it's overcrowded. That will be helped, as Basseches argues, by a second entry. The chaos of the Crystal entry remains to be fixed.

And it must. Architecture can, and should, provide both beauty and utility. While it should reflect the ideas and possibilities of the present moment, it should also be commodious. The ROM and Libeskind got it partly wrong: They produced an image and it was never fully resolved into a building. Now that's happening.

"After you've lived somewhere for a while," Hariri says, "you begin to think about how it can suit you better." And you worry less about the flashy bits and more about the bones.

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