That damn napkin…

If you’ve been living in Toronto for the past six years, then you probably felt like June 2, 2007 was a long time coming. On that day, the $270 million Michael Lee-Chin Crystal expansion of the Royal Ontario Museum finally opened to the public with a bombastic, all-night party. Dignitaries dressed as sharply as the Crystal’s angled faade lined up to get a peek at the inside of arguably the most hotly anticipated institutional expansion in the city’s cultural renaissance.

That day has passed. The confetti and streamers have long since been cleared away, the red carpet rolled up, and the spotlights put back in storage. The doors are closed until January in order to fill the gallery spaces with artefacts and exhibits. Even the debate about the structure’s architectural merit has died down somewhat. All that’s left to do, it seems, is to wait and watch to see if the vision of architect Daniel Libeskind and William Thorsell, director and CEO of the ROM, for a grand new cultural icon in Toronto will be a success. But with attendance for the month of June, following the opening, at over 80,000 visitors, an increase of more than 85 per cent over the three years preceding its construction, it certainly seems like the Crystal has had an impact.

But for anyone, like myself, who walks past the southwest corner of Bloor Street and Avenue Road on a regular basis, the waiting and watching has been going on for four years, ever since that damn napkin was revealed to the public. The tale of the Crystal’s birth seems now almost apocryphal: attending a family wedding at the museum, Libeskind — inspired by specimens from the ROM’s gem and mineral collection — sketched the initial concept for the expansion on a paper napkin, dubbing it “the Crystal.”

When ground was broken and hoarding erected in May 2003 it became apparent that this space age flight of fancy was actually going to happen. That’s when the long, slow process of building began: steel beams juxtaposed at impossible angles and growing at an agonizing pace, teasing an often confused public and challenging them on their notions about what a building should be, seemingly not to test their limits but to worry them, as a dog does a bone.

It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that we deconstruct the Crystal in the same issue as we reveal the winners of the 3rd annual Outside the Box Awards, Building magazine’s recognition of exceptional and innovative new projects from across the country. Our thanks again to this year’s dedicated judging panel: Lisa Bate (Bregman + Hamann Architects), Joe Pettipas (HOK), Tom Ponessa (Sustainable Buildings Canada), Kim Storey (Brown & Storey Architects) and Rhys Phillips. Although not entered in this year’s competition, the Lee-Chin Crystal certainly fulfills every definition of “outside the box” thinking. The building has ideas, it has emotion, it is confusing, it is rewarding, and to engage with it requires ridding yourself of any prior expectations.

Passionate, unashamed and bold, conceived with a joyful, sloppy fervour and executed with precision — what must be admired about the Crystal is how it has achieved something the design community in Toronto has long lamented: an active dialogue among the citizenry about the value of architecture in our city. Engineering marvel? Overblown ego? Civic saviour or folly? Whatever side you fall on in the debate, you must admit it’s got people talking, which in a place as famously apathetic as Toronto, is no small feat.

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