Last-minute travel: Taking in Toronto, old and new

By Mark Stevens
Sunday, November 1, 2009

You stroll along Toronto's maple-lined Avenue Road, past the forbidding facades of the university's Victorian buildings, and you think you have a fix on the city.

So Toronto.

You stop at the Royal Ontario Museum, where symmetrical windows frown disapprovingly on a group of kids rolling in the grass beside a stone lion.

So museum.

Then you turn the corner and look up at the jagged lines of the new Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, an addition grafted onto the Royal Ontario's early-20th-century facade.

The contrast between old and new hits you like a punch in the stomach.

It's also a clear sign of change in a city with a longtime reputation for architecture that ranged from staid to garish, with a pit stop at tacky. Not anymore.

Last year, Conde Nast Traveler called the Royal Ontario's addition one of the "seven wonders of the modern world." The Art Gallery of Ontario, a cultural icon, reopened after a facelift by Frank Gehry. And the American Institute of Architects announced that Toronto would host its 2017 convention.

All this points to an architectural renaissance that, as Toronto Star architecture critic Christopher Hume has written, "will forever change the way we think about" Canada's largest city. Or maybe it's just the excuse you need to jump on a plane for Toronto, whether your druthers tend toward new places for old stuff, grand old places, new homes for arts and culture or just old places made new again.

* * *

Built of five interlocking prisms of aluminum-clad strips and glass, highlighted by black geometric slabs, the Royal Ontario Museum's Michael Chin-Lee Crystal gallery shadows Bloor Street, looming above geometric black granite benches. Its angles are askew. It juts over the sidewalk like a mountain about to fall. Its edges stab the sky like stilettos. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, it has prompted criticism since construction began two years ago, among visitors who liked the old place as well as architecture critics who lambasted the design. Imagine New York's Museum of Natural History with the Guggenheim sticking out of its ribs.

But surprisingly, once you're inside, the contrast works. The gallery is an ideal backdrop for the dinosaur skeletons and Japanese ceramics and the new Schad Gallery of Biodiversity that it houses.

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