Tripping over the light fantastic

Love it or hate it, it’s here to stay. We’re talking Daniel Libeskind’s controversial crystalline entity, a series of huge, angled white facets grafted onto the heretofore sedate Deco Romanesque structure of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. Depending on one’s viewpoint, it is either a crowning achievement for both the renowned international architect and the city, or a gigantic blot on the T-dot’s escutcheon.

What it’s not is easy to ignore. Toronto’s II BY IV is expecting that same response to its own contribution in the ROM’s remodelling: the newly opened C5 Restaurant (C is for “Crystal,” 5 stands for the fifth floor). According to principal Dan Menchions, this multi-purpose lounge/restaurant/event venue should become as much an attraction to city dwellers as the building beneath.

Certainly there is much to admire in the way the design group confronted the space’s unique challenges. How to create an inviting, human-scale environ, within the enormous confines of architectural sculpture, while at the same time celebrating that sculpture? How to counteract the psychologically oppressive slope of its several inward-slanting walls? How even to interpret the complex technical drawings that were shipped up from New York? Menchions’s team was forced to rely heavily on computer renderings. A series of wire-frame studies -akin to model stage sets -were also used, which must have added greatly to the theatrical sense of what they were attempting.

The designers began by dividing the space into separate bar-lounge and dining areas, by way of a floor-lit, 30-foot-long, hand-blown glass screen, commissioned from local artist Jeff Goodman. They then took their theme from the unique lightscape created by the intersecting diagonal windows slashing through the outer dining room’s walls and ceiling.

Day and night, night and day. The interior lounge features flooring of dark, ebonywashed wood, low-set peripheral lights, low-slung, black leather seating and a tall, broodingly black wine wall. Peer around its corner and you see the light, literally – the dining area, bathed in natural sunlight by day, sparkling city light by night.

The south-facing dining room uses a sophisticated cream-on-cream scenario for its angled walls and furnishings, further differentiating it from the bar area. Bronze accents reflect off the acid-etched mirror tabletops, echo through to similarly mirrored elements surrounding the kitchen and main entrance, and glint off both the darkly polished floor and glossy black glass panels along the interior core wall.

Wherever possible, II BY IV has tried to remain true to Libeskind’s crystal vision; while at the same time offering intimacy as an anodyne to its outsized dimensions (some of C5’s ceiling angles reach as high as 40 feet). Cosy twoperson banquettes comprise the main restaurant seating. Slim-profile floor lamps provide splashes of light up the overhanging walls, as if to diminish their oppressive presence. Oblique window mullions vary light and shadow, casting the exterior architectural form back into the space.

But is all this enough to make C5 the “fun, flexible pre-function or after-work place to hang out,” Menchions planned for?

Some grumbling has already begun. On bright days, luncheon guests can be forced to wear sunglasses throughout their meals. Acoustical concerns have been raised about the venue’s cavernous reverbations. Smokers must descend five floors and exit a street door to indulge. “Minor” leaks in the windows seals appeared this August and, although they were promptly taken care of, questions remain about the long-term sustainability of Libeskind’s design. Apparently, C5 is destined to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it kinds of places. Just like its daddy.