I stopped recently at Museum station on the Toronto subway to inspect the finished product of so many months of renovation. In celebration of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the platform between northbound and southbound trains has been tricked up with stately columns as well as reproductions of three items from the ROM collection: a totem pole, an Egyptian coffin and something else I cannot identify.
As you sail by on the train, they look fine, but up close they’re cheesy. As Dolly Parton would say, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”
My disappointment matches my dismal view of the ROM’s new Crystal, based on a drawing on a napkin by Daniel Libeskind. The addition looks interesting from the outside, but go inside and it’s impossible to get any sense of spatial perspective. The interior is a series of nooks and crannies with surfaces at so many crazy angles that installation of exhibits is well nigh impossible.
I’ll reserve judgment on the changes by Frank Gehry under way at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but so far it looks like a mall makeover.
I’m a fan of Gehry. We’ve been fortunate to be able to visit Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao where the interior is just as exciting as the exterior and provides breathtaking space for Richard Serra and other artists. We’ve also seen the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The design is so compelling we spent an entire morning just walking around and around the outside.
By far the best of Toronto’s recent architectural eruptions is Jack Diamond’s Four Seasons Centre, home to ballet and opera. Viewed at night, from across University Avenue, it’s a magnificent orchestration of glass, metal, wood and light.
As for the Crystal or the AGO, I wouldn’t go around the corner to take a glance. If anyone’s expecting “cultural tourism” to boost the number of visitors to Toronto, the ROM and the AGO aren’t going to do it. If only Ken Thomson had hired Gehry to design a new gallery on the eastern waterfront. Gehry would have had sufficient space to do something terrific, not just for Thomson’s collection, but also for that part of the city that looks like Dresden after the Allied bombing.