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.

Toronto Facadism

Toronto is an interesting city, and one thing is apparent when strolling through Toronto: so much of this city is new. And new as in post urban renewal. Or newer, if you saw the condo construction behind Roundhouse Park. Much of downtown Toronto and Toronto’s historic neighborhoods were struck by urban renewal, though churches remain scattered between their large-scale, large massed neighbors. And today, high-rise tower construction continues at a rapid rate. Redevelopment continues. New development has its place, of course. However, sometimes when new development takes over, crazy things can happen. Take, for instance, this building near the University of Toronto.

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What is your initial thought? Historic? Disney World? Building constructed around it?

Just a façade.

Just a façade. There’s actually a Starbucks in there.

You might be asking, what in the world? As was I. See that plaque on the left. Here’s a photograph of it:

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It says: John M. Lyle Studio, 1921.This façade was part of a studio designed by John M. Lyle for his architectural practice. Lyle, one of Canada’s most distinguished architects, trained a number of noteworthy Canadian architects at the studio and worked there until his retirement in 1943. The building was set behind the homes that fronted Bloor Street, and was accessed by a pedestrian laneway located at 230 Bloor Street West. A portion of the studio’s façade was dismantled and reconstructed in its current location as part of a residential development completed in 2011.

That is to say: the building was in the way of development, so the façade was moved and stuck on this new building. Not ideal preservation, huh? The good part is the plaque that at least identifies where it was located and why it was moved.

What do you think? Acceptable? Not? I’d say it’s a case of relocated facadism, and the historic integrity no longer remains. Still, it’s interesting. I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please share below.

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Church Turned Condos in Toronto

Large churches struggle to find alternative uses once they no longer serve as houses of worship. Whether located in a small town or a large city, too many churches sit empty and abandoned. Once in a while you’ll come across a success story. This church in Toronto has been converted into condos. Take a look at the photos and let me know what you think.

The Victoria Presbyterian Church converted to condos.

The Victoria Presbyterian Church converted to condos.

Only being able to see these from the outside you can see that floors have been added. The balconies are clear glass. The original windows have been removed, but the fenestration remains.

Only being able to see these from the outside you can see that floors have been added. The balconies are clear glass. The original windows have been removed, but the fenestration remains.

Another view of the church, now condos.

Another view of the church, now condos.

A bit about the Victoria Lofts:

Converted from a turn-of-the-century church into 38 gorgeous units, this building is beautiful, rooted in history, and ideally located.  Boasting soaring ceilings and gorgeous architecture including a dramatic sloping roof, a copper-trimmed steeple, romanesque arches and curved brick columns, suites range from 600 to 1800 square feet over one or two storeys.  Originally the West Toronto Presbyterian Church, this stunning building has been a vital part of the Junction neighbourhood since 1885, when it first opened its doors.  Renamed the Victoria Presbyterian Church to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, this structure is one of several historic buildings in the area.  Located near the West Toronto Rail Path, a multi-use 4km path that links several Toronto neighbourhoods, the Junction is well-connected and a haven for any one seeking to reduce their carbon-footprint.  Spend an afternoon checking out the Junction Arts Festival, a neighbourhood display of music, dance and visual art, or take a fifteen-minute stroll south to High Park.

Apparently, converting churches into lofts is a thing in Toronto. Check out this post and this post. Do you want to live in a church? What do you think? A good idea? I’d like to see the inside. But, from the outside it looks pretty good. The windows would be better intact, but perhaps that wouldn’t work for the residences. In that case, the structure remains as a landmark in the neighborhood and it is legible.

Do you have a church in your town that could serve as a residence?