ROM: A Museum Addition with Much To Say

Institutions grow out of their historic buildings as their functions and purposes change and time progresses. They will need new space. Architects design the latest trends, looking to make a mark on the world. Preservationists seek to find common ground and conversation between historic buildings and architects. Yet, architecture – old and new – remains subjective. The Royal Ontario Museum (“ROM”) in Toronto, Canada is a prime case study for this discussion.

Let’s start here:

The Royal Ontario Museum  (

The Royal Ontario Museum (“ROM”) in Toronto, Canada.

What is that?, you might ask. That is the 1912 Royal Ontario Museum building with the 2007 “Crystal” addition designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. Intriguing, yes? Take a look at more photos before we talk (and click here for the project photos from Studio Libeskind).

The view across the street.

The view across the street.

The glass facades provides interesting angles and reflections of the adjacent historic buildings.

The glass facades provides interesting angles and reflections of the adjacent buildings.

View down the street towards the entrance to the museum (via the Crystal).

View down the street towards the entrance to the museum (via the Crystal).

My first question: is that addition over the building or through the building?

My first question: is that addition over the building or through the building?

Checking out the connection on the facade.

Checking out the connection on the facade.

The Crystal peeks over the side of the building, too.

The Crystal peeks over the side of the building, too.

Still with me? It’s a crazy building, but you can’t ignore it or turn away, right? Unable to answer the question of how does the addition connect to the original building from the outside, I ventured inside. Here’s what I found:

The atrium, of sorts.

The atrium, of sorts.

I walked around to see the wall junctions. The Crystal addition creates odd shaped spaces.

I walked around to see the wall junctions. The Crystal addition creates odd shaped spaces.

Another connection view.

Another connection view.

In many places, the addition seems to be a facade for the original.

In many places, the addition seems to be a facade for the original.

The entire floor of the new building sloped towards the front door; a little disorienting for those of us accustomed to walking on generally level surfaces. After chatting with one of the employees, I learned that the building was quite controversial and does not have plumbing (it remains in the original building). Interesting. This employee indicated that the addition had a lot of political pressure behind it.

Regardless of public opinion, I want discuss, with you, the addition in terms of historic preservation (or heritage conservation as the Canadians say). Is this style of architecture appropriate for the historic 1912 museum? Is it intriguing? Atrocious? Offensive? Welcoming?

The architect’s portfolio describes the addition as this:

The entire ground level is unified into a seamless space with clarity of circulation and transparency.  The Crystal transforms the ROM’s fortress-like character, turning it into an inspired atmosphere dedicated to the resurgence of the Museum as the dynamic centre of Toronto.

The design succeeds in inviting glimpses up, down, into galleries and even from the street. The large entrance atrium, the Gloria Hyacinth Chen Court, separates the old historic building from the new, providing a nearly complete view of the restored façades of the historic buildings.   The Chen Court also serves as a venue space for all kinds of public events.

Where to start? Well, it’s interesting. It does offer glimpses of the other buildings. One street facade is restored. Still, is this an appropriate treatment of this historic building? Let’s consider what the National Parks Service and Parks Canada would say.

In the United States, we follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation when dealing with historically significant buildings and new additions or alterations, most notably the following two:

  • (#3) Each property will be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or elements from other historic properties, will not be undertaken.
  • (#9) New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.

In Canada, the regulations are not identical, though Parks Canada has The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada. Similar to the US Standards, Parks Canada offers this about rehabilitation:

  • (#2) Conserve the heritage value and character-defining elements when creating any new additions to an historic place or any related new construction. Make the new work physically and visually compatible with, subordinate to and distinguishable from the historic place.
  • (#3) Create any new additions or related new construction so that the essential form and integrity of a historic place will not be impaired if the new work is removed in the future.

Basically, both the US & Canada’s guidelines say that new addition should be recognizable as new and simultaneously compatible with the old and the environment. And, should the addition be removed it should not impact the historic building (presumably the historic – the more prominent building – would be the one remaining). Due to these standards and guidelines, additions are often subservient to their predecessors. Setback from the original, additions employ similar architectural features without being renditions. Sometimes they are successful. Sometimes they are boring, because – at least if they’re boring – the additions do not overpower the original. From one streetscape, the Crystal overpowers the original, wouldn’t you say?

If we’re talking personal opinion: I like it for its intriguing angles and new approach to additions (I’m tired of boring additions that look like subdued versions of the old, unless the environment calls for such a thing). Yet, after looking through the architect’s portfolio and searching for other modern buildings, this one is not as unique as I would have expected.

But, on a professional review: the addition does not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. It is not visually compatible and removal would damage the building. However, is it not visually compatible because we’re not trained to read buildings with striking modern additions? Should we redefine how we look at buildings and additions? After all, there are countless style-less additions that ruin buildings. Maybe this one doesn’t ruin it so much as highlight a restored facade and engage conversation and community.

What do you think? Does it comply with the Standards? If yes, how? If no, should we look at the Standards in a new way? Or do you despise such modern architecture?

I’d love to have a discussion and hear your thoughts, so please comment below if you’d like to join.

4 thoughts on “ROM: A Museum Addition with Much To Say

  1. nlbenj says:

    Generally, the more I look at it, the more I like it – provided of course that it is actually doing a service to the museum’s programming and employee needs, and is not just designed to be shocking. From an evaluation standpoint, my quibble with the question of compatibility is not about style or materials, but mostly the scale. The SOI standards note the importance of appropriate size and scale, and the Parks Canada standards similarly refer to the new construction being “subordinate to” the historic portion. I think that the view taken from the opposite corner of the intersection is the only perspective in which I might get on board with the compatibility of scale. Otherwise, the Crystal kinda looks hungry.

    That being said, I think I’m finding myself a bit disillusioned with SOI Standard 9. I know this isn’t a new concern, and there’s been discussion about whether the notion of compatibility is actually hampering the full extent of contemporary creative expression. I feel like I see the same glass block additions over and over again…or the same curtain-walled new construction with alternating projecting bays, made to imitate the scale and massing of townhomes. Perhaps I just need to broaden the scope of rehabs I’m looking at. Anyone have great projects in mind that I should look up, with some distinctive contemporary expression?

    • Kaitlin says:

      Well said! I agree with your description of the Crystal being hungry. From the roof, it looks especially hungry! From Avenue Road/Queen’s Park the building does not look at overwhelmed, mostly just the facade I’ve shared photos of. Check out the architect’s website for better photos than mine!

      You bring up a good point – the notion of compatibility is hampering creative expression. What is the right answer for new creative expression and historically significant buildings? I think that’s why most older additions (and many new ones) are super boring. Or some look way too similar to the old, don’t you think?

      There is definitely a new trend of glass block construction and other repetitive architectural trends. I’d love to see some new examples of contemporary expression mixed with historic buildings.

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