Art with a difference


The Daniel Liebeskind extension to the Royal Ontario Museum under construction, Dec 2006.


Toronto, like many North American cities, is experiencing a building-boom just now. Fortunately, a lot of it is by really well known architects, including two Frank Gehry ventures and a couple of Daniel Liebeskind projects. The most prominent of Liebeskind’s is the very controversial extension to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) that I pass every day that I bike to work. I’ve been following its progress over the last two years.

A lot of people don’t like it. The ROM is this hoary neo-Romanesque pile that houses the requisite and predictable mummies and dinosaur bones, and which has suffered from declining attendance over the years. So they raised private and public money, finally, for Liebeskind to do his thing, which is to shake things up and get people talking. Liebeskind has relatively few completed projects, but those that have been erected, like the Jewish Museum in Berlin, get a lot of tongues wagging. Positive or negative, his buildings get a reaction.

Which it seems to me is what the best art is originally all about. Bland and safe buildings, paintings or music may play to the masses and generate income, but no great artist became great by playing it safe. I like Liebeskind’s ROM extension because it’s a jarring mass of angular glass and steel jutting dramatically out of this familiar, “museum-like” structure. The very art housed in that museum is there because at one time it too was dramatic and jarring, and that’s the statement Liebeskind makes. It’s unsettling to those who eat roast beef and Yorkshire pudding every Sunday afternoon and wish Toronto would be made up once again of only WASPs.

You know where this is leading: competitive piping and drumming. Our greatest, most memorable and highest-impact exponents are those who do things differently. The Strathclyde Police under Iain MacLellan were one of the greatest competition bands ever – maybe the greatest. They certainly set a new benchmark for tuning and tone, but did they advance the art? Will it be remembered for more than having its name engraved on a lot of major trophies? Conversely, there are bands and soloists who may have paid a competitive price for challenging the art.

For my money, give me quality with a difference. Give me Liebeskind, Calatrava and Gehry. Who do you think are the bands and pipers and drummers today who are making a lasting artistic contribution?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.