The vast majority of the building developments we cover on UrbanToronto — mostly residential developments — are all but strictly utilitarian in nature. Our need to build as much housing as expediently as possible means that most buildings, even if they boast certain architectural gestures to individualize them, are not primarily designed with aesthetic appeal in mind, but are designed for tight timelines and basic budgets. When a building carries more aspirational weight than the more quotidian ones we typically spend our time in, architects are selected through more rigorous processes, and heavier expectations are placed on their work: we want our most important buildings to represent the best of ourselves, and be a source of pride for our city.

At the announcement of the OpenROM renovation program in February, renowned Canadian architect Siamak Hariri of Hariri Pontarini Architects, designer of the new set of changes planned for the Royal Ontario Museum, spoke about architecture's ability to give form to aspirations, especially in great public buildings where the public want to experience some magnificence. This article excerpts Hariri's speech.

Siamak Hariri (centre-right) in a huddle with Stefan Novakovic, Michael McClelland, and Mary Wiens following the announecment, image by Craig White

The following excerpts from Hariri's speech have been edited for length.

What I love, have been searching all my life for, and am constantly amazed by, is the power of architecture to give form to aspiration — what we aspire for — that an idea which is in the realm of the non-physical, can be brought down to the physical and create in us an emotional response, move us, lift us.

Nowhere does this call on us more than when we do spaces for collective aspirations, aspirations which bring us together, unify us, gather us, and really — today — this is more important than ever.  This is where we as architects get to give our best, our furthest reaches of our imagination, our highest abilities and craft, to try and do our very best.

I have always loved this idea that museums are where we collect our treasures, our most loved and cherished works, not keep them for ourselves — hidden away in some palace — but give them, as it were, to everyone. Such a noble thing really, that our most beautiful collections, our most elevated conversations, bring us together, create a kind of place of collective relevance and to enjoy our best works, and ask our biggest questions — some answerable some not answerable — in spaces which gather us.

I will never forget some fifteen years ago when Kelvin Browne (working here at the ROM) told me…”you know, the ROM is, in Canada, among all the museums our only international player with the depth of collections and curatorial staff.” Maybe he was biased, but it did get us thinking, "what should a museum, a world museum, one of the top ten in the world, feel like?"

Sketch for a new staircase and skylight in the ROM's atrium, image courtesy of Hariri Pontarini Architects and the ROM

Hariri then stressed the importance of visionary leadership, thanking Josh Basseches, the new and current Director and CEO of the ROM, for providing direction.

We follow leadership, and Josh brought this in spades. He took the question to…”not only what is the ROM of the future, but what is a world museum of the future? Not only should you step into the ROM and know you are in one of the great museums of the world, but that you get instantly the breadth and depth of the wonderful offerings, that you are in a place which is relevant to you, that all are welcome. Diversity, culture, art, and community are embraced and celebrated…and deep questions asked.

Of course, we are not building a new building from scratch, that old and new must be unified and knit together, a bold new freshness instilled, flow and the museum journey of wonder made easy, that the existing be respected. In a sense this was the challenge, the opportunity, that this great museum is brought to its full potential and efflorescence. Most of all, Josh wanted this to be a place which would have a heart, both intimate and grand, light-filled, comfortable, with energy, maybe in a way the heart of the city, a hang out where you felt at home, and you could easily say ”let’s meet at the ROM.”

New introductory displays in a reworked entry area, image courtesy of Hariri Pontarini Architects and the ROM

Hariri also pointed to the another vital role in this latest transformation, that of philanthropy, referring to the chief benefactors of the OpenROM project, the Hennick Family, who have donated $50 million.

I will also never forget the day that Jay and Barbara Hennick were in my office. We were working together on another project, and they saw the ROM model, and asked about it, and of their own accord without too much persuasion, reached out to the ROM to give their support. That grew to be the unprecedented Hennick gift, the largest gift ever to the ROM. How do you explain the chances of life? More importantly, how do words adequately honour such generosity of spirit?  

More than ever, I feel our places which unify us, express our common good and places which gather us, need philanthropy. Some institutions give us health and extend our lives, that’s important, but culture, beauty, mystery, that’s what we live for. From my heart thank you Barb and Jay. We are builders, not just dreamers, we would not be building without you.

New staircase and skylight in the ROM's atrium, image courtesy of Hariri Pontarini Architects and the ROM

So you can see why I am filled with gratitude today, I love where we have ended up, love the design, and hope you like it too. Nothing of course happens without great teamwork, and not unlike one of those epic movies the list of credits is huge, a truly wonderful team behind it, one that has had grit, perseverance and patience, a team which has also morphed and changed over the eight years.  

Hariri concluded by thanking a number of other members of the team at both his own company and at the ROM, along with Michael McClelland of heritage specialists ERA Architects, and the builders, Eastern Construction, who will be managing this specialized build.

A fly-though of the plan provides a comprehensive look at changes for outside and in:

The work, with preliminary moves now underway — the Bloor Street doors have closed, and access to the museum is now via the Rotunda entrance along Queen's Park — is expected to take three years to complete. A companion story looks more in-depth at the actual changes taking place.

Queen's Park frontage of the Royal Ontario Museum, once again in use as the main entrance, image by Craig White

UrbanToronto will continue to follow progress on this development, but in the meantime, you can learn more about it from our Database files, linked below. If you'd like, you can join in on the conversation in the associated Project Forum thread or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.

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Related Companies:  B+H Architects, CCxA, Hariri Pontarini Architects, LRI Engineering Inc.