The Dream Life of Toronto

(Originally published in ROM, the magazine of the Royal Ontario Museum)

Places may seem like physical things, but they come to life only when imbued with meaning and memories. And that’s what thrills me about the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the ROM: more than just a museum of objects, it seems destined to become the leading repository of the dream life of Toronto. And not a moment too soon.

In 2001, not long before the ROM began its expansion project, I moved to Canada from New York—for love, and  to study human geography at the University of Toronto. My academic focus was “sense of place,” which I soon found to be a very complicated thing. In the old formulation, a sense of place was most closely identified with traditional villages, where people share a history and build that history into the landscape with their homes and monuments. But my new city was proving itself to be a different kind of place altogether—seemingly bent on reinventing the idea of cosmopolitanism.

As an American in Canada during those charged months after September 11, I felt this personally, as I faced what it meant to be a global citizen of a changed world. And I watched as the city faced it physically, as this current crop of architecturally ambitious public buildings, helped along by the Ontario SuperBuild Fund, brought that old question back to the fore about Toronto as a “world city.” With the release in the newspapers of each new set of architect’s renderings—wild squiggles and flying tabletops—the questions became clearer and the arguments in the press and at the dog park more tense: What is Toronto’s place in the world? What should the city become? And what does that have to do with architecture?

I knew what I thought—bring it on—but I never felt that I could be very convincing. As a New Yorker in Toronto, praising all this bombastic architecture only made it sound like I wanted to make Toronto into New York. And, in a way, I did. What I missed about New York was the sense that the city itself had a collective identity—a shared set of stories that tied together its disparate parts and its people. A “melting pot.” But Toronto defied cultural hegemony, in both its people and its places. Often this was beautiful—and more humane, as people from everywhere could continue, in meaningful ways, to be from everywhere. In physical terms, that same quality defines Toronto in what has become a cliché—a “city of neighbourhoods.”

Maybe I was acting like a competitive American (or so I was told), but I wanted monuments—places that tied together all the other places, if only to celebrate their differences—exceptional places, ones that were better than all the rest, and exemplified the life of the city. At moments, the arrivals hall at Pearson International Airport, which compressed Toronto’s “global soul” into a single location, came close. But airports make bad public spaces; they are too controlled, too corporate, and too physically cut off from the rest of the city. Surely the CN Tower symbolizes Toronto (and it does seem fitting that a communications tower would stand for a city so connected to other places). But you can’t occupy it except for riding to the top, and when you’re in it it disappears from view—which I suppose makes it a monument best admired from the comfort of your own neighbourhood. And Nathan Phillips Square may be the city’s living room, but (for now) it’s a shabby one. Toronto is a far better city than that. But how would you prove it? Too often it seemed to me like a city of averages, hiding its jewels. Where does this place go to dream?

The exuberant plans to expand the ROM supplied an answer. More than an opera house, art school, stadium, or office building, a museum offers itself to everyone equally—particularly a museum of both culture and nature. A museum is a gift to the public life of the city. From architect Daniel Libeskind’s very first rendering of a tilted glass trapezoid latched onto the historical ROM, it was clear this building was going to be special. I wasn’t alone in wanting monuments. And it became even clearer over the years of construction, as a staggering spider web of steel rose up from behind the hoardings on Bloor Street. Of course there were also nay-sayers: I listened to functionalists tsk-tsk it all as waste—an insult to both the aesthetic and the economy of the modernist dictum that “less is more.” But it made me kind of giddy. Toronto was good; Toronto was pleasant; but not until this building did it offer the inspiration that arises out of excess, out of the gratuitousness of imagination. A culture that produces a building like this—and a truly public one, not just one for rich people—strikes me as a culture that believes in limitless possibility. Libeskind has put this beautifully:“Architecture is a civic art, and a museum is not just a container to be filled with treasures; it is a place where people are brought to wonder about the spaces of their own futures.”

Which, admittedly, is never an easy thing. Nor is this an easy building. Wearing a hardhat and steel-toed boots, I walked through the nearly completed galleries early in April. It is confusing and awesome; it challenges everything we expect from buildings, and dismisses the conventions of style and beauty that we count on to smooth our way in the world. But in the process, it declares itself something special, and distant from the workaday world of classrooms, condos, and shops. It looks like nothing that came before, and like nothing else in Toronto. It isn’t entirely unique—Libeskind has also designed museums for Denver and Berlin that, at first glance, appear similar. But just as Gothic cathedrals all celebrate the same God, the twisting forms of each of these buildings respond to the same shared sense of modernity, arising out of the confusing nature of the world today. The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal is not about that old sense of place—the one that dictated the European architectural styles of the ROM’s earlier buildings. Yet more than most architects, Libeskind is driven by metaphor, by the “as if” of life: the possibilities of seeing one thing in another, of comparison, of poetry, of mixed feelings and ambiguity. Eight-year-olds—or anyone who maintains a childlike wonder at the world—will grasp this immediately. And it will stay with them. Architecture is an optimistic art.

Will it reinforce Toronto’s identity as a “world city”? Don’t tell the tourist office, but I don’t think it matters. People from all over the world may come to see this building, but its real legacy will lie within the city itself. As with the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre in Paris, the shock of the new soon becomes a symbol of possibility and freedom of thought; what in our celebrity culture at first looks like a work of ego, later becomes a gift to the city. I asked Libeskind this, about how he thought this building stood for Toronto, and he responded with a story about the portrait Pablo Picasso painted of Gertrude Stein. When Picasso was done, an observer commented that it didn’t look like her. “It will,” Picasso said. Wayne Gretzky said it another way: “I skate to where the puck is going to be.” “The museum isn’t to confirm everything we know about Toronto,” Libeskind added. “It’s to discover.”

The first night I ever spent in Toronto, in the early spring of 1999, I was taken to a bar on College Street with a globe hanging above the door. The sidewalk outside was as alive as any I had seen in the world, and the narrow bar had the kind of dense ecstatic energy that is unique to cities. Afterwards, we walked around the corner, into the quiet, leafy streets. And I remember being shocked by the contrast, by the fact that someplace so alive could simultaneously be so pleasant—or “livable,” as Torontonians like to say. Raised as a New Yorker, I realized on that first trip that I had never known a city so humane. I thought of this again walking through the ROM, and stepping from the old galleries into the new—from the reassuring squareness of the historic buildings, into the thrilling angles and crackling spaces of the new addition. The old and new buildings play off each other throughout the museum, sometimes framing one another, sometimes colliding. But at certain points, the shift happens in a single step; you don’t merely see it, but sense it in your footfall. The buildings are different volumes, different styles, from different eras, representing different histories. Like the city itself, they all connect—far more than they collide or coalesce. This building is a monument to that Toronto, and to its future.