Icicles, warmed by a late-winter sun, hang precariously from the Crystal's odd angles over the pedestrian plaza outside the Royal Ontario Museum's grand entrance on Bloor St., March 10, 2008.
Picture Credit: TONY BOCK/TORONTO STAR
If architects were as cavalier about gravity as they are about weather, half the buildings in this city would have fallen down by now.
The most recent and spectacular example of contemporary architectural hubris is Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. Turns out its precariously angled aluminum and glass facades are the ideal icicle machine. If Libeskind had set out specifically to design a building that endangers passersby with falling ice, he couldn't have done better.
The exteriors protrude at just enough of an angle that snow can collect on them. They also happen to be made of materials that absorb heat from sunlight, melting the snow that then drips and freezes into large icy protrusions capable of seriously hurting anyone below.
Of course, Libeskind isn't alone. Dozens of office towers downtown – including the Toronto Star building at One Yonge St. – must regularly put up signs warning pedestrians of falling ice. It's a rite of winter in Toronto, if not spring.
Global warming notwithstanding, snow and ice still happen here. But judging from much of the city's architecture, you'd never know it.
This is especially true of newer structures built of steel, glass and other high-tech materials. In its own way, the phenomenon highlights the failure of the modern world to remember the basic facts of life. Architects are by no means alone in thinking they're above such mundane considerations as climate; it is the story of our age. It is why environmental degradation has become the crisis it is.
Architects are simply men (and women) of their time. Now that technology has liberated the profession from problems that kept their predecessors earthbound for millennia, the sky is the limit. Not only can they reach ever higher into the clouds, they are able to express themselves as never before.
For Libeskind, among our most poetic practitioners, that means creating structures like the Crystal that defy traditional limitations, including that of gravity itself. Who says walls must rise perpendicular to the ground?
Thus the contemporary architect is freed from conventional constraints to deal with more artistic issues. In Libeskind's case, that means creating an aesthetic appropriate to an age characterized by anxiety, pain and provocation. The Crystal evokes all this brilliantly.
It is a magnificent accomplishment, though most Torontonians feel otherwise. We are, it seems, an overwhelmingly practical lot, not given to flights of poetic fancy, whether in two dimensions or three. We also derive satisfaction from hearing of the misfortunes of the Libeskinds of the world.
When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued Frank Gehry earlier this winter, the press went wild. His Stata Center building leaks, is poorly drained, mouldy and, yes, icicles fall from its roof.
Let's not forget Madame Savoye, whose family commissioned the father of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, to design a residence. The Villa Savoye became one of the most celebrated buildings of the 20th century. But Madame Savoye was so upset by the leaky roof, she threatened to sue.
This is no excuse, of course, but it reminds us that despite reports to the contrary, architects are human after all.
Christopher Hume can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
WHAT DID I TELL YOU!!
This article in the Toronto Star by Christopher Hume says it all ~