Critics divided over Toronto's ROM Crystal

The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, the controversial renovation of the venerable Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, is preparing to open its doors to the public.

The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, the controversial renovation of the venerable Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, is preparing to open its doors to the public.

The ROM Crystal: Backers are hoping it will set a new standard for architecture in Toronto. ((Jeff Speed/Royal Ontario Museum))

Media viewings begin Thursday and a gala opening begins Saturday for the Crystal, a silver-clad crystalline shape that emerges out of the old Victorian-era building and hangs over Toronto's Bloor Street.

"It's just a wonderfully extravagant moment for Toronto," says William Thorsell, chief executive of the ROM, who has spent years bringing the project to fruition.

Thorsell believes the flamboyant design, byPolish-born U.S.architect Daniel Libeskind, will set a new standard for Toronto.

"He's one of these real artists who has pulled back the curtain on a new face of beauty," Thorsell says of Libeskind.

"I think he's teaching us that beauty comes in many guises, just like painters have over the centuries."

The $250-million expansion took years of fundraising and the design, in particular the external cladding that had to be especially designed, proved difficult to build.

On Wednesday, the museum announced that its fundraising campaign for the Crystal has topped $262 million, including $228 million toward construction costs.

There is scarcely a square corner in the Crystal, which will add 175,000 sqare feet of exhibit space to the ROM.

Architect Daniel Libeskind, left, and William Thorsell, chief executive of the Royal Ontario Museum, sign the final major steel beam of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal in July 2005. ((Royal Ontario Museum))

Architecture buffs are divided about the design, which some say does not contribute to the streetscape and others believe is out of keeping with the heritage building.

Mayor David Miller says he won't offer an opinion on the architecture.

"The Crystal's interesting," he said. "I think it will be interesting to hear people's opinions. There's going to be strong opinions on both sides."

But Thorsell believes the design will do nothing but good for Toronto.

"In our vision for the architecture five or six years ago, we said we really wanted to do an act of city building, not just institution building," he said.

Toronto architecture has been so mediocre for so long, it may take time for people to accept something besides a traditional box, he admits, but he thinks this building will pave the way for more beautiful architecture.

Earlier this week, the ROM announced several new acquisitions it will display in the new Crystal and its renovated galleries.

Among them are a six-metre ichthyosaur, Eurhinosaurus, that will bethe centrepiece of a marine display of Mesozoic life, and an Egyptian mummy cover dated to between 986 and 964 BC.

The objects were purchased with the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust, a $50-million fund from a Toronto philanthropist who was a longtime patron of the ROM.