ROM Michael Lee Chin Crystal · Toronto

The Spaceship Has Landed

I swear, this will be my last blog about the Michael Lee Chin Crystal. For now.

At 3 p.m. today, I ventured in impulsively on my way home and got a grand tour of the space, devoid of any exhibitions except for two. The guide, I believe, a ROM administrator or architect (he had the fingers for it), explained to us that the Crystal was never designed to be made entirely of glass. It’s a misconception created by the name, as well as the public display of the model in the competition, which was made out of plastic. The difference in the plan was that the aluminium siding was actually supposed to be porcelain tiles.

Anyway, here’s my non-architect, non-professional take. I was totally overwhelmed as I approached the Crystal by foot. There were tourists everywhere, snapping pictures for all they were worth. And yes, the structure is overwhelming, when, as a pedestrian, you find this strange asymmetric object tilting over above your head, ready to fall on you. A cavernous archway leads you to a regular sized door. Entering the building is therefore far more impressive than leaving it, because the sense of space narrowing only happens from the outside in.

It narrows, only to expand into a vast, somewhat confusing emptiness. Thank god for the ROM staff who were there to point me in the right direction. I was disoriented for a few minutes, until I got my backpack checked in, purchased my membership, and joined the tour. Perhaps due to its lack of completion, the lobby is in complete and utter disarray. We turned a small, unassuming corner and went up to the 4th floor in the most massive lift I’ve been in to date. It fitted in about 30 of us, with space to spare. And now begins the tour.

We exit the lift and emerge into a grey and white corridor. Meh. Not a super impressive view of the Crystal’s rooftop. Then, we enter double doors and kablooie, I think my brain splatters all over a stunning space. Slashes of windows, walls careening at all angles, track lighting, whiteness. A frozen explosion. The room is bare, but this will be the textiles room, and I can imagine all sorts of fabulous tapestries suspended from the rings on the ceiling, probably not waving in the breeze, but certainly suspended. Next door is an equally angular and beautiful space, where a temporary photography exhibition allows me to see how the space can actually be utilized. Objects are projected from the ceiling, or boxed in glass cases, so you can walk around them, view them from a different perspective other than being tacked to a wall. The guide tells us that the building does not have a single 90 degree angled wall or column, except for the basement area. So above ground, it’s all like this. Simply mad.

The stairwells contain between each floor, what the guide called “Cabinets of Curiosity” which was how museum collections began in the first place. There certainly is an eclectic collection of that — a cornucopia of lead soldiers, stuffed birds and insects, shells, paperweights, and strange cups and saucers — perfect for little kids to press their noses up to and breathe on. While I think it’s a lovely idea that adds a somewhat macabre but highly personal touch to the space, it still is a bit precious, and not entirely practical when catering to hundreds of visitors and screaming schoolchildren going up and down those stairs and blocking the landings.

The remaining floors I don’t have much to say about. The amount of natural light (window slashes) increases as we descend, and the guide explains everything through a speaker to a geriatric gentleman who’s wearing a tweed suit and earphones much like a mod kid’s. The asymmetry continues, and there are times when I feel like the floor’s sloping up on me, or that I’m drunk, or that I’m tripping on some crazy shrooms. Or simply, that I need to check if my glasses were correctly prescribed. There are two galleries on each floor, connected by what almost looks like, and definitely sounds like, a gangway. From it, you can look down and up into what is called the something of the Spirits (I forget), and it’s just goddamn cool, because the gangways all criss-cross each other. I had to tilt my head sideways so that I didn’t feel overcome by vertigo. (Actually, even looking up at the Cabinet of Curiosities made me dizzy, because it’s on a wall that leans over me. And the birds are just freaky.) But it’s noisy — metal grates that knock and rattle each time you pass — even when stepping gingerly.

And so on and so forth until the spaces get kind of tiring, because I get the point, and it’s time to leave. I end up in the basement, where I see a wonderful exhibition called Drama and Desire. I suppose I’m so used to the conventional museum instructions of a gesture to start you in a certain direction, that I quite frankly am not sure where to begin, so I start the way I always do. To the left. (Thank you Beyonce.) And then I end up meandering all over the place, which isn’t necessary a bad thing, but the space is just so massive that I’m lost.

Bad points: spaces are so large that exhibits, unless equally interestingly displayed, might get lost. Other bad point: gangways are noisy.

Good points: I do not agree with the fact that some people think that the structure should have been built to showcase the exhibits. I think the showcasing of the exhibits will be a whole new challenge in this structure, and will definitely result in some innovative, creative, unorthodox displays. Also, BEST view from a stairwell window ever — of a dinosaur skeleton in the window display of the old ROM structure. Seriously made me feel like I was in a spaceship and we had landed in some prehistoric world.

I strongly urge you to visit the empty galleries before they close on Monday. This building clearly launches our city into the same architectural league as London and New York. Toronto does NOT need polite anymore.

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4 thoughts on “The Spaceship Has Landed

  1. I just waltzed in and purchased a membership (Student, $45), so I went in for “free.” But tickets are $20. It’s open to the public. If you want a tour, there’s a few of them all through the day, and the one I took was at 3 pm. I think it was a “special” tour, and I didn’t have to pay — I just asked the guy if I could join them, and he said yes. You should definitely check it out if you have the time. It’s a crazy space. Children went mad in there too, with all the nooks and crannies to explore!

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  2. So I ended up going yesterday evening. Got there @ 6:55PM and noticed the sign out front about the free guided tours running until 7PM. Note that none of this information was on the ROM site, nor on the automated telephone service! Raced in, and found out I needed to purchase a membership/or ticket as you mentioned. However, the front desk which sells the tickets mentioned that the tours are 1st come 1st served, and the 7PM just left. They didn’t think I’d make it since the tour has just 25 spots. Since I didn’t know if I could make it I decided on not buying the ticket. I’m hoping to go back Saturday afternoon to check it out…On a side note, I thought it was interesting that none of the press coverage mentioned that there was still some work to be done (construction out front).

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  3. That’s what they told me as well. But I saw this large group of people going to the elevator with a man and a microphone, so I just hopped in with them and said, I’m supposed to be on the 3 pm tour, is this it? And he said, no, and I said, oh, do you mind if I join this, and he said, sure. So, they don’t really mind if there’s one more person in the band. There were lots of people who would come up to us and wander away. I mean, what are they going to do — ban you? Anyway, it’s better you’re going Saturday, because you’ll see in natural light instead of at night.Ohhh. And the Tsoundcheck is not age appropriate for me. Sadly. 😦

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