Opinion: Making over the National Arts Centre remains a work in progress

The National Arts Centre's new Elgin Street face glitters at night. Photo: Peter Robb

Andrew Waldron is the author of Exploring the Capital: An Architectural Guidebook to the Ottawa-Gatineau Region. He is also an architectural historian and works for Brookfield Global Integrated Solutions as a heritage conservation manager. He teaches at Carleton University’s school of architecture and was a longtime employee at Parks Canada. ARTSFILE asked him for his take on the renewed National Arts Centre.

It is hard to age gracefully these days. Offers to keep you young are everywhere. Out of desperation, you may even turn to surgery. The noble National Arts Centre (NAC), only 48 years old, is one building that has had a makeover, creating in the words of the architects (Diamond Schmitt Architects), “a marriage of a new wing to a gruff and forbidding partner.”

The first phase of a $110-million project to expand the NAC opened to great fanfare with a spin that the addition solved many problems caused by Fred Lebenshold’s original 1960s design. Popularly described as a ‘fortress’ of elite culture, histrionic arguments for the addition are now familiar when architects and planners decide to ‘improve’ historic buildings.

Across the national capital, public buildings have been going through transformations. Iconic and monumental buildings were being altered while writing my book, Exploring the Capital: An Architectural Guidebook to the Ottawa-Gatineau Region. Parliament’s West Block infill, the Government Conference Centre’s rehabilitation for the Senate (also designed by Diamond Schmitt), the former Bank of Montreal addition as an exclusive government event space and now an addition to the National Arts Centre. We have also seen the demolition of the former Ottawa Congress Centre (now the Shaw Centre) and the Lorne Building. The most recent controversial proposal is the unfortunate addition to the Chateau Laurier.

Few of our places remain preserved and intact beyond a generation or two. As new construction becomes scarcer in our age of sustainability, architects have turned to re-working historic buildings. Rehabilitation is the new niche business for architects, with easily more than $1 billion worth of work in our region in the past decade.

The National Arts Centre was a sensational venue when it opened in 1969. Oriented to the Rideau Canal, evoking the Canadian landscape with outdoor terraces and views to Parliament, using warm aggregate panels and a processional drama into the grand foyer, integrating artworks within the building’s structure, and tied together by geometry that broke from the typical cubic glass modernism of the previous generation.

Today, these qualities have become drawbacks and weaknesses. The NAC is finally more ‘transparent, open, and hopeful.’ Ironically, there was no open competition. The architects presumably chosen behind those fortress doors.

Of course, the NAC needed a rejuvenation. The appointed directors and CEO were acutely aware of this as they saw themselves and their audience age before their eyes. First, hire the brilliant Alexander Shelley. Redesign the logo. Add more comfortable and accessible seating. And, as part of Diamond Schmitt’s design intent, “unveil the mystery of the place with an animated entry” – meaning, attracting the Wi-Fi generation.

That was also the hope in 1969 – attracting youth.

The architectural argument for a more inclusive NAC is questionable in the new addition. The Elgin Street entry, which had never been properly resolved, is a low-ceilinged entrance, perhaps to mimic the Canal entrance, but without the processional spectacle that Lebenshold designed so well.

There are familiar 21st-century elements, including step seating popular in campus architecture and outdoor spaces, a neo-modernist curtain wall (which upset the birding community, but has since been resolved) and of course, more and well-designed washrooms.

Part of the narrative is the addition’s respect for the site’s heritage; (it is a National Historic Site of Canada): decorative triangle motifs are laser-cut into exterior fins, a hexagon wood-coffered ceiling and Eramosa marble flooring are intended to be formal cues that the addition is compatible, but distinguishable from the original.

Yet, there are flaws to the addition that are at odds with the original structure. There is a narrow hall on the orchestra level created by a rehearsal studio. Perhaps it will be lit in the evenings for audiences to watch musicians practice during intermissions. Narrow entrances to the mezzanine may pose issues for concertgoers. The box office is relegated to a remote annex. There are no integrated artworks as there were in the original building. The wish for interior transparency partially destroyed the open-air terrace – a key character-defining element of the heritage designation. A modest elongated rhombus with retention of the open terrace may have better unified the spaces.

Repeatedly, the NAC is labelled a ‘Brutalist’ building. Centennial fever brought cultural centres to cities across Canada, many built of exposed poured concrete to save time and cost (for example, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg). It was a time when concrete had a democratizing effect for a baby boom generation. It did not hold the corporate symbolism of the glass skyscraper. Hugging the landscape and designed around the freedom of the street, many architects – including Arthur Erickson, John Andrews and others from the time, touted concrete’s material quality. Now, Brutalist buildings everywhere have the eye of architects who followed their 1960s teachers. Their very existence and enigmatic form are to be reshaped into bright cheery spaces.

For instance, Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Eng., was opened a few years earlier than the NAC as a model of Brutalist design, with separate sculptural volumes and interconnected spaces, forming a massing that was rooted to its landscape and intentionally low to the ground. It is an incomplete, yet similar story to the NAC. Under the banner of “Let the Light In,” it is closed and undergoing a renovation.

Brutalist buildings are challenging forms. Their inspirations were the counter-culture of post-war Western society, though because of cost and efficiency they became mainstream. Now the rhetoric against them is their unappealing form, lack of light and inflexible space. Hatred for these buildings is cultivated and stories of their inadequacy begin soon after one wants a contemporary building. A case in point, the Ottawa Public Library. A sculptural mass with huge potential, it has now been cast aside in favour of Ottawa’s desire for a baby Rem Koolhass building.

The NAC is a much more refined and sensitive space than the raw Brutalist buildings of the time. Indeed, the arguments presented for this addition would apply to all sculptural concrete structures from the era. Of course, most of those architects have died and cannot defend their work.

The so-called NAC ‘Fortress’ was once understood as a warm and embracing place, modest in stature to not overwhelm Confederation Square or the monumentality of the Chateau Laurier or the Parliament Buildings. Fortunately, you can continue to experience the calm and rich interiors of the original.

Building additions is difficult, delicate and challenging. It demands a strong knowledge of the past. Architectural hubris must be quelled to give the original design intent an opportunity to shine, while solving deficiencies.

The NAC addition will be celebrated. The re-branding has been exceptional. It has solved some issues with the 48 year-old building (especially the acoustics in Southam Hall). Many skilled minds were part of the design process and public consultations were held. In the coming months, the marquee lantern will be turned on, digital projections will promote performances and the former bookstore/Fourth Stage will be rehabilitated. Let us see if those “exclusive and excluding views” of the NAC will become a hub for a new generation.

Andrew Waldron is the author of Exploring the Capital: An Architectural Guidebook to the Ottawa-Gatineau Region. He is also an architectural historian and works for Brookfield Global Integrated Solutions as a heritage conservation manager. He teaches at Carleton University’s school of architecture and was a longtime employee at Parks Canada.

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  • Richard Todd

    The NAC’s problems aren’t limited to the brutalism of its architecture. The fact that its most brutal facade is what you see from the street: a big wall of concrete. Years ago there were a couple of book stores on the ground level where the “Fourth Stage” is now. These at least had a friendly aspect and, dealing in literary culture, provided a friendly welcome in an otherwise forbidding monolith.