Crushed Under the Crystal: Remembering the ROM as it used to be

An ode to empire: the Royal Ontario Museum as it stood for most of the 20th century.


Heritage Home readers are, on the whole, advocates for preserving architectural features in buildings-of-note.

It is a position that is not always uncontroversial. Many more practically minded homeowners suggest that change allows for the natural progression of designs, and that altering major aspects of older buildings extends their lifetime.

There are many examples of situations where this change-for-the-sake-of-change approach hasn’t so much revivified architecturally important buildings as damned them. For those who live in Canada’s largest city, one example will come especially easily to mind.

In 1912, the rope was cut on one of Toronto’s first iconic buildings–the Royal Ontario Museum.

The Museum quickly became a symbol of Canadian pride. With its arched ceilings and windows, uneven stone facade and and labyrinthine internal layout, the building served as a worthy centre-of-culture in the heart of young dominion’s most important city.

In the minds of its designers, Toronto architects Frank Darling and John A. Pearson, the building was an ambitious synthesis of the Neo-romantic, byzantine and Italianate styles. With the benefit of hindsight, it might be better to describe it as a mirror of the British Empire which it served to glorify–jaw-droppingly ambitious,  deeply flawed, and undeniably impressive.

A 1933 expansion aside, the building remained essentially unchanged for its first nine decades. Unfortunately, just as enough time had passed for its true architectural value to be recognized, the Museum’s bigwigs announced it would be undergoing a major redesign.

Crystalline catastrophe: the ROM, post-2007 revivification.

The controversial expansion–designed by American Daniel Libeskind–added a monstrous aluminum-and-glass clad crystal into the Museum’s north wall.  In its final form, unveiled in 2007, the new design looked very different to the original proposal–the result of miscalculations related the amount of artifact-damaging light that could be allowed inside the exhibit halls.

To make matters worse, it would be less than a year before another major design flaw forced even more changes to be made. Snow buildup–a problem which had plagued other similar designs by Libeskind–forced the Museum to install a new two-layer cladding system to the structure.

One reviewer generously described the results as “hellish.” Heritage Home goes further. Its official position on the expansion is that it was a garish sacrilege on par with the sack of Rome by the Visigoths.



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