The Royal Ontario Museum is planning to soften the edges of its jagged face.
The museum occupies a valuable block of real estate in downtown Toronto, as well as a critical piece of the city's consciousness. Re-imagining its public space – an initiative that could cost an estimated $3-million – has the potential to offer a genteel pedestrian lounge to tourists as well as tony locals sashaying in and out of the luxury strip's couture boutiques.
The stripped-back plaza unveiled along with the hulking ROM "crystal" in 2007 suffered from a lack of funds, though at least the hydro lines were buried and out of sight.
The new plan for a sweeping three-sided public space that will integrate trees, urban furniture and simple, imaginative ideas of public comfort is entirely fitting: After all, half of the museum is dedicated to nature – the other to the triumphs and weight of civilization.
The idea is loosely inspired by the civic grace of Place des Vosges in Paris and is playfully called: "ménage à trois."
Daniel Libeskind, the architect responsible for the aluminum-clad "crystal" that juts over Bloor Street, will not be part of the design team. Instead the acclaimed Toronto studio Hariri Pontarini Architects and the lauded Montreal landscape architect Claude Cormier, who recently charmed the public with his joyous work at Sugar Beach, will handle the designs.
The reinvention of public space would stretch from Philosopher's Walk east along Bloor Street West and turn the corner at the Queen's Park boulevard. Visitors would experience new sophisticated seating beneath the shelter provided by lush canopies of trees. Signage would be improved to help lead people north from the Museum subway station.
"We want the ROM to be a really great part of the community. We want people to think well of us," said Kelvin Browne, the museum's vice-president of communications. "We want to make the best possible experience for visitor. The plaza has the potential to be more used and more comfortable than it is."
Mr. Browne would like to bring the standards of public-space delight up to the level of detailing and engagement showcased next door at the transformed Royal Conservatory of Music – a stunning integration of a historic building with a new light-filled atrium and concert hall space. East of Avenue Road, the revitalization of Bloor Street has also introduced European standards of tree planting and granite pavers. Bookended by sophisticated public space, the museum is right for feeling like the poor cousin.
"We're rethinking the whole notion of sidewalk, public space and institution to give to Toronto that slow, wonderful experience that you get now in New York or in Europe, where you sit and have a conversation," said design lead Siamak Hariri, who is also the lead architect on the Faculty of Law transformation project just south of the ROM. "That's simply not the case on Queen's Park and not even on Bloor."
The museum needs to take the Hariri/Cormier designs out to interested sponsors to secure the millions of dollars required for the serious revitalization of public space.
There may not be any money so far in the public-space coffers, but the museum has set an ambitious completion date: March 19, 2014, in time for the ROM's centennial celebration.