rough notes

In Defense of Daniel Libeskind’s ROM Crystal

with 3 comments

A propos.

This was supposed to be a digression on W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, a wondrous narrative which has been consuming my thoughts for over a month now. Sebald’s last novel before his untimely death is haunted by images and representations of the Holocaust’s dead. The disconnect and absence of understanding that fills its pages is all-consuming and forces the reader to question the nature of human living, and the nature of human life during and after the course of such a gruesome incident of human destruction. Theodor Adorno’s heart-rending questioning of the nature of art and humanity clearly creeps into the morass of emotion and contemplation when thinking about the text.

Recent criticism on Daniel Libeskind’s new addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, however, is affecting my thoughts as much as Sebald’s text has done for so long now. Lisa Rochon, writing in The Globe and Mail’s Weekend Review of Saturday, June 2, 2007, incorrectly and inappropriately asserts that Libeskind’s newest building is only one in another series of works that serve to promote “the exaltation of the individual”, and his own oeuvre of sadness and pain, triumph and sorrow. Although Rochon acknowledges Libeskind’s unique skill as well as his personal and familial links with the Holocaust, she ultimately, if not contemptuously, finds his architectural works – texts of grief, loss and confusion – as buildings which have no place in contemporary society.

Reviewing the newest wing to one of Canada’s largest museums for the country’s largest national daily, Rochon sardonically admits that she cannot understand Libeskind’s muse, or the anger and loss called upon and built into the Crystal. Rochon recalls Libeskind’s familial loss in the Second World War, but mirrors it against certain regrets one might call childish, fanciful, or even decadent to deflate the gravitas of the Holocaust. Writing that “the new ROM rages at the world. This rage I cannot pretend to understand. But, it surely has something to do with losing 85 of your relatives during the Holocaust, of playing the accordion not the piano because of what the neighbours in Lodz, Poland might say . . . of only knowing the pleasures of building at the age of 52. Libeskind speaks often of all of this. His architecture is his Facebook,” Rochon claims ignorance, or at least a flippant inability to understand Libeskind in order to reinforce her incorrect assumption that Libeskind’s architecture is simply an exaltation of Libeskind.

Libeskind’s architecture is not an exhalation of Libeskind. Libeskind’s architecture is a revelation of postmodernity. His works, on the whole, are not meant to reflect the local culture or the community, but to reflect and showcase the collective thoughts of a society that does not have words to describe pain (and at other times, the glory) it has inflected upon itself. Libeskind, much like the narrator in Austerlitz, and most of the West in 2007, did not experience the Holocaust or the Second World War, but still is affected by its devastation. Rochon either is unable or refuses to acknowledge this chasm in humanity’s soul. By drawing links to The Divine Comedy and its awful chasms and rings of its Inferno, Rochon makes light of the Crystal’s interior aesthetic as something “defined by a lack of decorative grace or warmth, where walls are always painted white and there’s poured epoxy on the floors”. She rhetorically asks the reader, “what did we do wrong? Unpaid parking tickets? Not enough organic greens in today’s lunch? The wrecking of the environment? War? It’s hard to know why we’re treated to exposed screwheads on thin drywall.” Rochon, apparently, will not allow the buildings in her community to reflect the true, and sad, nature of humanity.

Rochon does praise Libeskind for “his remarkable and deeply troubling Jewish Museum Berlin”, calling it a building “that operates so profoundly as an open sore.” Libeskind’s works often strike home the emptiness in which we find ourselves surrounded by today, but Rochon is “not convinced that [such] a language of loss is one that should be replicated from city to city.” Instead, the Globe critic expresses a desire “to reclaim that perfect quadrangle [of ‘public space’] between the original east and west wings of the museum.” Rochon longs for the return of downtown Toronto’s Philosopher’s Walk, bounded on one side “with a tapestry of buff brick corbels and arched windows.” As glorious as it may be, what Rochon seeks is simply the past – a time not forgotten, but surely a moment which our culture has moved beyond.

Without digressing too long on the highly exclusive nature of Philosopher’s Walk (almost always a small digression itself for the University of Toronto community, nestled between the ROM, the Royal Conservatory of Music, and the Law School) or the fact that for too long the corner of Avenue Road/Queen’s Park Crescent and Bloor West was a derelict jumble of misused or underutilized public spaces (for years the little quad was boarded up and the Walk was a place where women were to not walk at night) that cried for civic enhancement, I would like to suggest that Libeskind’s renovations to the ROM creates and enhances a public space in a manner that properly reflects a culture absent within itself. First and foremost, The Crystal is an addition to a public museum that is both archive and storehouse, and lecturer, to its visitors. The ROM has increased its capacity to house collections and to show them to the public. If the Crystal is not a revitalization of public space, then I must certainly question what Rochon’s idea of public space may be. Secondly (and to the heart of the matter), Libeskind’s Crystal does what art must do – reflect, adapt, and showcase society and culture. Rochon’s longing for the neo-Romanesque lines of the ROM’s original buildings is a longing for a culture that pre-dates the devastation of the middle of the twentieth century, before we tore our own soul apart. The longing is misguided because in this case, we cannot return to the same. Rochon’s desire for a new ROM that reclaims the old, where “the personal angst of an architect will be less indulged,” is fanciful at best and ignores the carnage that we have inflected on ourselves. Libeskind does not embrace the carnage, but works with it, acknowledges it, and asks what is different within ourselves today, compared to seventy years ago. Libeskind’s works, including his crystal, gives form to Adorno’s words that “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream . . . it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living – especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living” (n.1; p.362-363).

n.1. Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. Tr. E.B. Ashton. New York: Seabury Press, 1973.

You are commodified.


Written by mitchellirons

June 3, 2007 at 8:52 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] structure.”But it’s not all criticism and spoilsports. Over on personal blog Derivative is an impassioned defence of Libeskind’s ROM. The writer argues that the Crystal is an improvement on public space, […]

    National Post

    June 4, 2007 at 3:29 pm

  2. I realize I’m in the minority on this one, but I was always a fan of the Crystal. Even when it was only rusty broken ribs jutting out of the ROM for a few years.


    September 11, 2007 at 10:55 pm

  3. I wish I had taken picturs during the “rusty broken ribs” stage. It was fascinating to watch the steelworkers and the design evolve.

    Kenn Chaplin

    February 21, 2008 at 7:09 pm

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