Joe and I packed our two bikes, left Bryn with family and drove to Toronto to stay for three nights to explore the Royal Ontario Museum’s many treasures. Our B and B, only a few blocks away from posh Bloor Street and the ROM, was nestled into a thickly treed residential neighborhood crammed with middle to upper-class homes. (Almost every home we saw since entering Canada is made of warm red brick. A wood-framed home is rarely in evidence.)
The drive went smoothly. Customs took 5 minutes. But as we finally began to weave into Toronto’s sprawl six hours later we found ourselves in the middle of massive, forever long highway construction. 12 lanes were reduced to one or two. We dared not blink for fear we’d miss exits- or take them erroneously. (Our GPS British lady, completely muddled by all the confusion, gave up almost immediately.)
Finally, an hour or so later, satellite-settled, the GPS lady regained her composure and found Admiral Street, and we settled into our comfy rooms.
Some impressions: Admiral Street winds in serpentine fashion toward Bloor Street, and Queen’s Park, and is lined with every fabulous world-class store imaginable: Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Holt Renfrew, Chanel, Tiffany, Hermes and Armani, to name just a few. Restaurants are elegantly expensive. What’s displayed in those windows is as out-of-reach financially as the moon.
A block or so before all this bedazzlement we biked through curvy blocks of commanding, ivy-clad brick residential homes lining Admiral street, some sporting huge balconies high up, stained glass windows and even some towers, dating from very early to the middle of the last century. They’re tightly fitted into narrow lots absolutely stuffed with mature plants: shrubs, trees, struggling geraniums and impatiens- all fighting for light. As a result, there are big weeds growing lustily in between and underneath. It seems that after planting, the greenery was often- well, abandoned. The overcrowded ‘landscaping’ partially obscures the homes. It would be tricky to find one’s own driveway, I mused. Why had nobody decided to grow just beautifully kept grass, which would have framed many of these imposing homes?
The cars parked there were elegant. We saw ladies pushing carriages, but no teens tossing basketballs in driveway hoops- because there wasn’t enough room.
The whole plant-cluttered neighborhoods were vaguely unsettling- bordering on claustrophobic at times- for this gardener.
Anyway, we biked to the museum by a different route the second morning and stopped suddenly in confusion. My God! The ROM’s lengthy 19thcentury brick façade had been massively breeched -chopped- speared? by thrusting, MEGA-HUGE pointy, triangular shards of steel-lined glass that jutted out over the pavement at nearly impossible angles, reminding me of Superman’s eerie Ice Home.
It was Stunning! Awful! Horrifying! Marvelous! Scary! Weird!
My mouth took a very long time to shut.
Here’s how it’s described online:
Inspired by the ROM’s gem and mineral collection, architect Daniel Libeskind sketched the initial concept on paper napkins while attending a family wedding at the ROM. The design was quickly dubbed the 'crystal' because of its crystalline shape.
His comment: "Why should one expect the new addition to the ROM to be 'business as usual'? Architecture in our time is no longer an introvert's business. On the contrary, the creation of communicative, stunning and unexpected architecture signals a bold re-awakening of the civic life of the museum and the city."
Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the same man helped to design the new World Trade Center in New York City.
Never, ever have I seen anything like this freaky marriage of the stately, dignified elderly brick façade and entrance arch to a giant, triangular, thrusting, powerful, angular, screaming-its presence-mountains of glass. People walked under it without a thought, but that whole gigantic, fantastic façade hanging over me was unnerving. The architect has made it impossible for anyone to ignore the ROM’s presence.
After I’d settled down a bit I decided I might learn to really like it.
The older building, resigned now to centuries of baffled acceptance of what it cannot change, is, I fancy, beginning to adapt to the twenty-first century with grace.
This ‘connection’ might be the most innovative join-up I’ve ever witnessed.
We locked our bikes and popped into a narrow, dark-walled corridor lined with wiry metal tables and thin chairs. People sat, sipping coffees and munching bakery purchased from its smallish vender-style snack room. Huh, thought I. It’s rather- understated. I’m used to cafeteria-style lunch/tea rooms in big-city (New York/ London) museums. But this seemed to work. People brought their own food; others downed sandwiches and water in the huge atrium off the entrance.
There were lots of folks wandering through the exhibits. Our exploration of ‘China’ the day before had attracted Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian people, as well as crowds of Europeans and Americans. Today, though, we began to wander through less populated rooms filled with Greek and Roman works of art. Gorgeous vases portrayed beautifully coiffed women in flowing robes sitting with friends. There were rearing horses... The drinking cups, though, some with delicately painted men and women sumptuously dressed, made us gasp. One incredible cup had a goat’s head and neck attached. I could imagine some lucky owner sipping wine from that beauty. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
In fact, we spent a lot of time gazing at drinking cups: some presented as shallow oval stemmed dishes with handles at both ends. The ones with beautifully portrayed animals as an integral part of the cups themselves were strongly reminiscent of the museum’s fantastic exterior architecture. Ordinarily, one wouldn’t ever think of such intriguing ‘blendings/joinings, say, in the 20th century, or even in this one. But darn it, they can work! (Hmmm. Maybe Libeskind took inspiration from these gorgeous cups.)
One little snag- it would be tricky to set down an animal cup to reach for food. Wine would tip out, wouldn’t it? Joe took a photo of this cup to illustrate the situation.
But I could happily live with that tiny inconvenience if I owed such a spectacular sipper.
All this wandering and mooring for a bit on benches designed to be only temporary ‘rest havens, chatting about what was before us, and then moving on made the time pass far too fast. Again, we found we’d been on our feet for over 5 hours. Enough. We were suddenly aware that lunch would be welcome. Why not visit the same pub as yesterday? It was three o'clock.
Over a shared ale and delicious chicken/salmon salads, we decided to return in the spring to pick up where we’d left off. There is so much more to absorb!
A few more impressions:
- Our residential neighborhood was really quiet, especially after 7 p.m., though it lay very close to populous, posh downtown Toronto.
- We noticed only two uniformed guards inside the museum. I’m sure more were there- just not obvious.
- Bordering the local park, bikes were locked onto specially fashioned stands displaying rent-a-bike machines. Toronto is VERY bike-friendly (although one wonders how practical this accommodation actually is during their long, fierce winters). There were 6-foot-wide bike lanes down both sides of Bloor Street, though very few bikers. Anyway, just insert a special card above the bike you choose, which scans it to identify you.’ Unlock your bike and off you go.
- The University of Toronto was right next to the museum. Lots of students wearing heavy backpacks walked purposefully here and there. Smokers abounded.
- The ROM’s elevators are- irritating. This is a first. I’ve always felt neutral-to-grateful for them.
We’d enter to face a curious panel of buttons and little squares of gray metal too low down (I, whopping 5 feet tall, never complain about such a thing) which blend too well into the gray metal panel behind, making it difficult to quickly discern what’s going on. The interior lights were a bit dim. Instead of showing floor numbers clearly, folks had to peer to find them. ‘Up’ and ‘down’ chevrons were set oddly and helped only to confuse; there was no info on what different floors offered.
Besides its ‘plan’ being hard to sort, passengers were uncomfortably aware that seconds were ticking by. Way, way too soon the elevator, impatient with its load of puzzled, trying-to-discern-the code, finger-poised people, would begin to move up or down on its own. Visitors would shake their heads and mutter their annoyance in different languages as they found themselves on unwanted floors.
Instead of facing that ‘jumble symbol jungle’ again they’d shrug and walk off to find some stairs. We did, too.
- I found the ‘directive’ signs to galleries off the giant atrium nearly as confusing. The names of the donors for particular areas were huge, long and elegant. For example, The Elizabeth Antonia Hamblatonious Smythe Gallery (I’ve made up the name for demonstration purposes) would be set in capital letters etched deeply into creamy marble high above the entrance.
After that, trigger words at eye level about what was in there were almost grudgingly added- a bit like an afterthought.
I’d have designed it the other way around. Big, easy-to-read declarations for what is on exhibit, with the donor(s) names much less massive. It’s lovely-- stunning, actually, that these people cared enough to give the grateful museum the eye-popping money necessary to erect such beautiful, airy rooms. Having said that, and meant it, a nice plaque on the wall as one enters makes more sense. It’s about the museum’s collection, not the donor.
Well, here I am, fifteen hundred words into part two, and threatening to ramble on and on. I must leave out many more marvels we admired.
We’d depart Toronto very early the next day, a Sunday. Most folks would be asleep pre-dawn: traffic would be reduced to a trickle. Thank God.
Montreal was in our sights.
Tune in next Sunday for Part three: Montreal: French Canada’s Island Jewel.
PS: Today, I’ve decided I really like the ROM’s exterior. The whole thing is rather special. Freaky special. I want to go back if only to study it more. If you visit, note that it ‘ate’ a window on the side not shown. There is only a bit of one still showing. The rest has been- ingested... Wow.
This thing is stupendous.