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Monday, January 11, 2010

ROM's Crystal - I Love It

The previous head of design for BMW, Chris Bangle, made some bold moves with their lagging flagship 7-series. It was luxurious, it had the six-figure price tag required to be considered a luxury flagship - and it was bland.

He developed a design cue that would go on to be derided as the "Bangle butt". It was "ugly", and the media got into a pile-on frenzy. But a funny thing happened. Other companies started designing their cars with a similar line and, before too long, what was once considered ugly became a design standard that put BMW's once bland 7-series at the vanguard of what was happening in the auto world.

Bangle understood something that could be described by another famous line, "no press is bad press." While this has been debated, a more appropriate summary is that a human expression requires acknowledgment by a response - positive or negative. No response, apathy, indifference, can be considered worse. There's a verse from the Biblical book of Revelation that says "I wish you were either hot or cold. But since you're lukewarm, I spit you out." Give me hot soup, not tepid soup. Give me a cold drink, not a room temperature drink. A hot bath, a refreshing swim...

And so I find that the Michael Lee Chin Crystal of the Royal Ontario Museum is a smash hit. Conde Nost Traveller calls it an architectural masterpiece. Some like it. Some hate it. The bottom line is, around the world, people are talking about it, and that in itself makes it a success. People hear "you've got to see this thing, it's the ugliest building ever built." They're also hearing "you've got to see this thing, it's fantastic." In both, they are hearing the same thing - "you've got to see this thing.

And they go looking for it, and may find out about an exhibit, or a little known fact about something special in the collection, or that Toronto is a city willing to try something bold and different, or that Toronto is a place that embraces creativity at risk of being ridiculed, giving support to ideas and encouragement to those willing to...ok, you get the idea.

If you approach it from the east, strolling westward along the north side of Bloor Street West along the southernmost edge edge of Yorkville approaching Avenue Road, it juts out in a 3-dimensional attack on the senses, and literally tips the street, drawing you in like the Death Star's tractor beam, bending time and space and gravity. As you cross Avenue Road and stand directly across from it, it looms over you and draws your eyes skywards until you can see your reflection staring down at you.

Before the addition, the museum was "just another old building", ivy covered in spots, undistinguished from its surroundings on the northernmost edge of the University of Toronto's main downtown campus. The ROM's motto is "engage the world", and that venerable old building just wasn't very engaging. And then there was the Crystal. 

The Crystal is built in such a way that it's as though it burst through the skin of the traditional museum building, an futuristic explosion of cold steel, sharp angles and glass escaping the dull blandness of the weathered brick of the old museum, and it says - nay, shouts - "hey, you've got to see what is going on in here!" It's saying history is exciting, and is worthy of demanding our attention.

Having said that, it's also saying something more.

Museums are also not unlike libraries, where one is supposed to be quiet, and move slowly - it's not a playground or a fish market. Further, the kinds of things that are typically housed in a museum require finding and, most often, digging up. It is a careful, painstaking, long, arduous process. I've always been amazed to see archaeologists using brushes to brush away sand and clay from a treasured find - with patient care a brush, so relatively gentle against rock that has clutched the treasure in its grasp for hundreds or even thousands of years, is used to help reveal that treasure. These treasures sit, buried, hidden from view, and wait for someone to go out of their way to quietly bring them to light.

The Michael Lee Chin Crystal is the exact opposite. There's nothing slow or quiet about it - it's big, it's loud, and it's certainly not waiting for us to notice it, to enter into where it's hidden from view. Nope, it literally reaches out into the street, demanding our attention and challenging us to see archeology and its treasures in a whole new light. 

Love it or hate it, it is absolutely un-ignorable, unmissable. It's not benign, and harmless, and polite and retreating. It is a topic of conversation before one even enters it. As such, I think it's great for the ROM, I think it's great for the city of Toronto and its citizens. 

I love it.


Anonymous said...

Funny and refreshing! TJ..

Rosanna said...

I used to hate it...but it's grown on me. The more I see it, the more I come to appreciate it.