Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017

The Daniel Libeskind-designed addition to the Royal Ontario Museum has been dubbed "the Crystal."

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Toronto's new edge

The Queen City has always been home to world-class art. Now it has the venues to match

Until recently, Toronto was known for such architectural icons as the CN Tower (the world's tallest at 553 metres), the curved towers of its City Hall and Mies van der Rohe's black minimalist TD Towers. On the whole, not the kind of lineup that drew tourists on its architectural merits alone.

But over the past few years, Toronto's cityscape has literally transformed. Bold architectural enhancements to the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Royal Conservatory of Music, and striking new cultural buildings including the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the Ontario College of Art and Design and the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the revamped Distillery District are eloquent symbols of Toronto's architectural renaissance.

This past June, the city inaugurated a major new arts festival, Luminato (tel: 416-368-3100; www.luminato.com) with eight world premieres which coincided with the opening of the Royal Ontario Museum's daring new Crystal addition. With more than 1000 artists from Canada and around the world celebrating new benchmarks in music, theatre, dance, literature, design and visual arts, the 10-day festival cemented Toronto's place as an international destination to experience arts and culture.

And it's not as if Toronto was short of world-class performances. The Queen City has long been rated among the world's top three for live theatre (after London and New York). It's renowned for its international film festival (TIFF), which is a magnet for the glitterati every September, as well as its year-long slate of live jazz, and a creative clutch of resident artists, writers, composers, filmmakers, musicians and designers.

But never has the city been more exciting to visit, with intimate neighbourhoods redeveloped with lively cafés and lounges, interesting boutiques and galleries. And a trip along Toronto's cultural corridor will treat you to striking new architecture that speak volumes about the city's flourishing creativity.


Avenue of the Arts
Start at the southwest corner of Bloor Street and Queen's Park Circle. Here, German architect Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queen's Park; tel: 416-586-8000; www.rom.on.ca) (ROM) juts over the sidewalk, leaving passersby dumbfounded by its seemingly precarious balance. The tip of the aluminum-and-glass Michael Lee-Chin Crystal hangs 10 storeys above a "Crystal Point" marker on the sidewalk below.

Inspired by the ROM's magnificent gem collection, the new space was named for its angled, multi-peaked construction. The addition, along with the restructuring of the original 1912-1914 ROM building is, at $250 million, the largest heritage restoration project in Canada. It is also considered one of the most challenging construction ventures in North America for its engineering complexity and innovative construction methods.

Inside, the Crystal is composed of five interlocking, self-supporting structures that rest on the ROM's original buildings. These prismatic shapes create massive galleries, each distinguished by angled walls, slashed windows and natural light. These spaces will showcase exceptional artifacts from Canada's First Peoples, China, Japan and Korea, as well as treasures of art, archaeology and natural science. A monster dinosaur skeleton from the ROM's incredible collection will "look out a window" at passersby on Bloor Street.

The unique architectural details include the "Stair of Wonders" that links the floors, and a vertical void - now dubbed the "Spirit House" - that rises five stories from the main floor is traversed by bridges at each level. If anything, the Spirit House reflects the sensitivity of ROM's CEO William Thorsell. Starting on the ground floor, which is set with cubic metal chairs custom-designed by Libeskind, this has become a place of contemplation enhanced by mystic music and sounds.

Thorsell explained how he approached the void and "listened to the building metaphorically," then requested "an oral artwork." The result: a recording of 20,000 sounds - from birds to raindrops to singing voices in many languages, and some sounds tied to global events, like the Muslim call to prayer timed with sunrise and sunset in Mecca - that resonates from the Spirit House and throughout the galleries.

In conversation prior to the opening of the new addition, Thorsell's exhilaration was palpable as he praised the new ROM as "conspicuous evidence of the change in Toronto." To the critics, Libeskind said, "The building is ambitious, but a great city like Toronto deserves nothing less."

Whatever your impression, don't leave before visiting C5, the fine dining room on the fifth floor. It's worth lingering over a signature ROM-tini or café au lait, for views down to the CN Tower or the treed Philosopher's Walk that runs behind the museum to the historic buildings of the University of Toronto.


Roam around the ROM
Leaving the ROM, cross the street to the new Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art (111 Queen's Park; tel: 416-586-8080; www.gardinermuseum.on.ca). A quintessentially modernist jewel box, it just completed a $20-million reconstruction by Toronto heavyweights Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB).

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