05 October 2007

Architecture, ego and the ROM

A recent article in the Globe and Mail about the woes of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal addition to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto rather nicely illustrates modern architectures' sacrifice of charm, personal scale and functionality to architectural ego.

The Crystal is a brutal assault on the dignity of a heritage site. It is rather like slashing the face of a handsome old friend, an almost criminal act ... at the least, an act of vandalism.

It illustrates an underlying problem of modern architecture. Architects like to think of themselves as artists, but this isn't their role. An artist answers only to his muse, that is to say, his ego. If an audience appreciates what he does, that's icing on the cake, but he is obliged only to please himself. The architect, by contrast, must serve first the public. His principal responsibility is to the people who will have to work in his building, or live in it, or appreciate exhibits in it, or just look at the damn thing when they walk down the street. The responsible architect must submit his ego to the needs of the public, and of course to the demands of function. Unfortunately, too many modern architects ignore all this and dedicate themselves to building monuments to themselves.

The question is why we put up with this. Perhaps it's because the decision-makers, such as the ROM's selection committee, simply want to be chic, hip, with it, cutting edge ... whatever. Or perhaps it's simply a matter of scale. One of the villains of modern architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, coined the phrase "less is more" to define his minimalist approach. Less may be more on the artistic scale. Drawn at 30 inches, a building of simple glass and concrete slabs, shorn of decoration, may appear quite sleek, quite arty, but built at 30 stories it will lack human scale, it will be cold and intimidating. Similarly, a crystal penetrating a cubic form may have a certain elegance as a drawing. As a full scale structure it is brutal and crude.
A passer-by, confronting such a monstrosity, might believe he has happened upon a flying saucer that just crash-landed.

Whatever the administrators of the ROM were thinking of, it wasn't maintenance. The window-cleaning costs alone are expected to increase by up to $200,000 a year. What folly for an institution that depends on charity. Two hundred thousand dollars that could have been spent on collections will now be spent on scrubbing glass. The additional daylight allowed by the Crystal addition risks bleaching exhibits, so the museum has had to purchase special blinds to filter out UV rays. And then of course there's the problem with the Crystal leaking.

Nor were they thinking about their customers. With all the weird walls and corners, safety has turned out to be a major challenge. Al Shaikoli, director of capital development and facilities, admits "We didn't predict human behaviour."

Nor were they thinking about the exhibits. With no vertical walls for displaying artifacts, one artist was reduced to designing a temporary wall for his exhibition -- it cost $200,000. Director of gallery development Dan Rahimi candidly admits the architect, Daniel Libeskind, "didn't design this building based on the collections. We had to design the collections to go with the building." As one letter writer to the Globe observed, that's rather like buying a painting because it fits over the sofa.

So there you have it. Forget about the function of the building, its very purpose, and forget about the people who are to use it. It's all about the architect. Instead of form following function, function follows form ... and ego.

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