The Globe and Mail  May 17, 2008

A rooftop garden fit for a philanthropist

When you sit down to lunch at the Royal Ontario Museum's C5 restaurant, you may be in elite company, but you don't get a million-dollar view. When the museum reopened last year, its glossy new restaurant faced a grim rooftop. "It looked like 10,000 square feet of asphalt," architect Lisa Rapoport says.

That's changing right now with the construction of Liza's Garden, an innovative project that will be unveiled in June. Unlike most gardens, this one will be there just to be seen.

Designed by Ms. Rapoport's firm, PLANT Architect, the garden is based on one central idea: The entire landscape is arranged to form a lively and colourful scene from one point of view. "It's odd, because it's space you're never going to walk through," she says. A series of hills and valleys will carry plantings in different colours, accented by a few trees, blue glass, and "light cables" - which will create a nighttime spectacle and give birds a place to perch.

The garden design (which has already won an award from the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects) also raises some questions. The field of landscape design has come a long way since the gardens of Versailles, but the idea of a landscape as backdrop is still powerful: One ROM trustee asked if PLANT could make their initial design "more picturesque." And Ms. Rapoport says that helped turn Liza's Garden into a play on 18th-century conventions.

"In a picturesque view, your eye rocks back and forth on a diagonal," she says. "So we actually changed the topography so that your eye takes a zigzagging wander through the site." But here it's going to be created by LED lighting and triangular land forms - an artificial and contemporary vocabulary.

For the museum, the garden fills a significant gap in the completion of its Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. During the crystal's construction, "we would go up there on our hard-hat tours and we realized we needed a green roof," says the museum's chief executive officer, William Thorsell. His idea was for a conventional green roof: a layer of thin soil and hardy ground cover. But "I always expected to put it off," Mr. Thorsell says, "because our larger capital campaign was going on."

But when the idea of a green roof came up at a board meeting last June, chairman Jack Cockwell stepped up with an answer. He offered to pledge most of the budget on the spot, on one condition: The garden should be named after Elizabeth Samuel, a former chair of the board. Ms. Samuel was ill, and she had a long history with the museum as a volunteer, a docent and a trustee. Along with her late husband, Ernest, she was what Mr. Thorsell describes as a "major benefactor"; following the philanthropic example of Ernest's grandfather, Sigmund Samuel, Ms. Samuel put $5-million toward the ROM's renovation project.

And to honour her, Mr. Cockwell wanted the announcement to happen that day, in her presence. "So I ran around and made some calls, and at the end of the meeting we made the announcement," Mr. Thorsell remembers. "It was an emotional moment."

A few museum executives and trustees took charge of the project, led by Kelvin Browne, then the head of the museum's Institute of Contemporary Culture.

Mr. Browne, former editor of Gardening Life magazine, wanted the garden to become something more creative, in keeping with Ms. Samuel's personality. "We felt it should be forward-looking," he says, "because she was."

With a budget of about $500,000, Mr. Browne steered the job to PLANT Architect, which works in architecture and landscape architecture - largely because of the firm's winning design proposal to renew Nathan Phillips Square. "They seemed to be able to do something very good and contemporary, while working within an existing setting," says Mr. Browne, who is now ROM's director of marketing.

And of course the museum today is a challenging setting for design work. The Lee-Chin Crystal, designed by Studio Daniel Libeskind, is probably Toronto's most visible - and controversial - piece of contemporary architecture. But since the garden will be seen only from inside the Crystal, Libeskind's design wasn't much of an issue. Seen from above, the plan "has this very Libeskind-looking fractured look," Ms. Rapoport says. But that's really a coincidence: "There wasn't a lot of discussion about how that relates to the big silver thing at the end of the roof," she adds.

Ms. Samuel approved of the garden's ideas, though she didn't live to see its completion; she died in March of cancer and emphysema. (A flood of donations in her memory has almost covered the garden's cost.) But when the project is completed next month, it will be an appropriate tribute to her, Mr. Browne says.