In the Skin of a Crystal

When we started design on the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in 2002 there were a few things that we noticed about the existing building. Our first observation was that the historic wings could no longer be seen as grand vistas as originally envisioned. They were cluttered and segmented and all the windows had been blacked out (you can still see traces of that in some of the wings that have yet to be renovated). In addition, the Terrace Gallery, the Crystal, had many of the same characteristics. Galleries did occupy the first floor and even though the building had been built as recently as 1980 it also looked inward. There was a fence around the site which contributed to the introverted relationship it had with Bloor Street. From those observations came one idea that early on drove the design of the faade, which was, to put it simply, that we did not want to create a black box as was the norm here and at so many other museums. The toughest challenge for us in achieving this goal was that because of the artifacts inside we would not be able to have very much glass area, which meant we had to search for other ways to extend what little glass area we could use.

In our competition documents, we presented an idea of openness. We wanted to reconnect the public institution of the ROM with the public. We wanted to create interaction between the museum’s artifacts and the public. Not just the paying public but the public that might be walking by on the street outside. So it was important for us to make connections between inside and outside, to create a sense of openness that permeated the building. There are many ways to achieve this, depending on the type of building. It can be achieved in the faade alone but in this case there were other facets of the design that were developed to help to guide and inform the decisions that we would later make regarding the faade. And conversely and simultaneously, there were elements of the faade that we tried to extend deeper into the building.

The first important move which was not directly related to the faade but had a major impact on it was the decision to relocate the main entrance to Bloor Street. As architects, this freed us from the history of the existing buildings and made it possible to create something new. And part of that something new was the idea of the plaza: a broad enveloping plaza that wrapped the building and connected the historic wings with the crystal by wrapping itself around both. The building addition interjects itself into the plaza and, conversely, the plaza fills up the negative spaces of the projecting geometry of the building, already starting to blur the line between inside and outside. There is no definitive straight line of building. If you were to walk along the perimeter of the building you would find yourself in a constantly shifting relationship to the inside.

To further blur that line between inside and outside we extended the outside plaza into the building. We moved the security line as far back as possible into the building, essentially establishing it at the form that serves as the vertical circulation — the stairs and the elevators which lead to the galleries. We want the public to be able to enter and move between the plaza and the interior as much as possible, make the ground floor as permeable as possible and let them experience some of the key components of the building without necessarily paying or going up into the galleries, such as the Museum Shop, the C5 restaurant entrance, and the Spirit House (an interior void formed by the intersecting crystals).

This extension of the plaza is created in plan but also in section. The curb line at Bloor Street sits five feet below the established ground-floor level of the centre block of the existing building. Rather than interrupt that continuous flow between inside and outside with stairs or ramps we decided to tilt the whole thing, creating a continuous plane connecting the plaza subtly and seamlessly to the existing building. Standing at the main entrance you could look up the gentle slope and see right through the entire depth of the crystal deep into the existing building. This is further emphasized by our choice of materials which are similar in colour and texture from outside to inside. When you enter even further all three faades of the court elevations open up and you are able to see them fully restored from ground floor to parapet or the top of the building.

So what does this have to do with the faade? Our desire to create this sense of openness led us to how light and views might penetrate the outer skin and extend itself deep within the building, much like the circulation of people on the ground floor.

It began with the design team’s crude explorations and observations on how light might land and pass through the geometry of the building, by studying a piece of Russian crystal we found in a shop in Berlin.

As a very rough starting point we took one of Daniel Libeskind’s drawings. We made a slide of it and began to project it on the crystal that we had bought.

While this could be interpreted quite literally, what we were more interested in studying was how the light passed through the crystal, how it refracted and reflected through and on the various planes, how the light seemed to wrap itself around the forms. If we could understand how light on this crystal might act we could then start generating some basic ideas of how the windows on the ROM might act.

With this in mind we began to examine the same slide on an actual model of the building. We went through dozens of iterations, altering the slide by blanking parts of it out or adding lines, shining it at different angles onto our model, all the while observing, recording and extrapolating what we had learned from our earlier observations.

We began to develop a language for the openings. That language was one where the windows or cuts sometimes wrapped planes or sometimes reflected off one plane and showed up unexpectedly on another. The language carries equally over all planes of the addition, on what might be considered a wall, a roof, or both or neither, creating windows or skylights.

We then started to look at how the cuts we were making on the faade might extend into the interior of the building, how they might project through the exterior plane, similar to what we had observed on the Russian crystal. So deep within the building, you find the language of the windows reflected within the door openings, the balustrades overlooking the atriums, the openings to the bridges that soar through the Spirit House, and in the bridges themselves.

At the actual windows themselves, these cuts in the faade are further emphasized by the depth of the window. A typical wall, measured from the exterior skin to the interior drywall, is approximately four feet thick. With the glass being all the way to the outside face, this means that a person could actually stand within the depth of the wall, obviously inside but in some cases where the planes tilt outward they are also simultaneously projected into the space of the plaza, whether that be at the ground floor or the three upper floors.

We repeated the process dozens of times, working more and more closely with the program of the galleries, trying to resolve our window patterns to the various demands and limitations dictated by the varying sensitivities of the artifacts within. Accordingly, we made some windows in the composition smaller or bigger, added some here, deleted some there. What was interesting is that in the process we discovered that we wanted to treat the open areas and the closed areas with equal importance, even though there was less open area than closed area. The window was not just one more element in a larger field, but was rather a part of the field itself. We wanted to make the appearance of the faade about those two elements only.

In the end, there was a necessary transformation of our three- dimensional ideas into two-dimensional drawings representing the technical requirements. B
ut, more importantly, they also codify the architectural language that we had been working on for so long and in so many different ways.

Stephane Raymond of Studio Daniel Libeskind is the project architect for the Renaissance ROM project.

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