Crystal Meth: Michael Lee Chin and the ROM

By Aaron Boehlert

The ROM is one of Toronto’s last remaining buildings built before the 1970’s, or at least it was before the addition of the Michael Lee Chin Crystal, which would appear to be a large geometric fungus growing from a classical stone façade. One of Toronto’s strengths is making beautiful buildings ugly, and this is no exception. Bound in steel and glass, the realization of architect Daniel Libeskind towers over Bloor Street, a bloated symbol of artistic and anthropological over-industrialization. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that it was voted number eight in the world’s ten most repulsive buildings.

Somehow the inside is worse than the outside: once you enter the dark, awkward foyer – which was moved from its proper front on Avenue Road to the side facing Bloor Street – you’re ushered into a too-long line to pay a too-high fee: $21 for students plus $7 for the Terracotta Warriors exhibit (though Friday night tickets are half-price). Within the disproportionately large main hall, you would expect an abundance of natural light, like in The Guggenheim, MoMA, or l’Orangerie, but the sun’s only entrance is two slit-thin skylights. Up the white staircase are some of the permanent collections, as well as current exhibitions. The floor plan is confusing; paths lead to dead ends, and small side-doors are actually the entrances to main rooms. The po-mo angles beside the classical architecture are disconcerting, and seeing white and aluminum everywhere made feel as is if I were trapped in a MacBook Pro.

Looking for a place with a quieter color scheme to ease my inevitable headache, I stumbled into the old building, the Hilary and Galen Weston Wing, where I took a moment to regroup amongst the period furnishings. The Wing was dark, but less intimidating and raw than the modern addition, so I wandered the rooms. There were displays of weapons, pottery, and suits of armor – all nice if mundane. Then I ventured onto the landing of a superb Art Deco stairwell, where, unlike in the Chin Crystal, movement was easy. The space, light, and flow are cohesive and calm. While the other wings chase trends, this one reminds one of the Natural History Museum or the Met; timeless in its simplicity. I descended the staircase slowly, savoring the stone walls and simple silver rails before my inevitable Dantean descent into the entrails of the laptop.

Interestingly, the police have since investigated Michael Lee Chin on the grounds of enabling bad architecture. Or maybe it was investment fraud.