Phase One of the NAC renovation revealed and ready for the public

The view from the top of a set of stairs leading from Elgin Street down to the Mezzanine level of the NAC. The new space is light, airy and open. Photo: Peter Robb

There are some last minute touch-ups, no doubt, but for all intents and purposes a good chunk of the refurbished National Arts Centre was revealed Wednesday afternoon offering the centre’s CEO a chance to reflect on what seemed a somewhat improbable dream half a decade ago.

Peter Herrndorf gave a lot of credit, in an interview with ARTSFILE after the big reveal Wednesday afternoon, to timing.

“When we first began to discuss the idea we knew that two key dates were coming up, Canada’s 150th birthday and the NAC’s own 50th.”

NAC CEO Peter Herrndorf stands on the centre’s heavenly stairway inside the new atrium. As can be seen, there is more work to be done at the top of the stairs. Photo: Peter Robb

The confluence of those two markers on the calendar helped, no doubt, but as Herrndorf added, nothing would have proceeded without the help of two federal governments from two different parties.

The first up was the Harper Conservative government. That might surprise many given that government’s apparent track record, but much is owed, Herrndorf says, to the former Conservative cabinet minister and Ottawa West-Nepean MP, John Baird. “He was a real champion,” Herrndorf said. The Tories kicked in the $110.5 million to add a new entrance off Elgin Street. The Trudeau Liberals added the icing on the cake with a further $114 million to renew the performance spaces in the building that opened to the public in 1969. In many ways this is a direct contrast to the politics, in the form of the Liberal government of Lester Pearson, that got in the way of the original construction of the NAC.

The building was built in the “brutalist” style of the 1960 and, as architect Don Schmitt described it on Wednesday, was intended to be a “fortress for the arts.” That’s an intimidating vision. Schmitt’s job was to “open the space up.” Herrndorf feels that Schmitt’s design has accomplished that goal and then some.

Bathed in the light allowed by all the glass on the addition and sitting on the wide blond wood-clad stairway that will connect Elgin Street to the Mezzanine area of the centre and be a place where people are intended to gather, Herrndorf pronounced himself well pleased with the results, so far, of a year of construction.

More will be unveiled in two phases: one in the fall when the renewed Fourth Stage will open along with new performance spaces. Finally in 2018, the renamed and doubled in size Panorama Room (to be called the Canada Room) will open.

A view of the new addition looking toward the Rideau Canal area. The floor is stone from the Owen Sound area. Photo: Peter Robb

While time will tell, Herrndorf believes the new addition will complement and not compete with the old design. He says the NAC and the architects were very keen to ensure that Montreal architect Fred Lebensold’s building would be respected.

But he will measure success by “how the public accepts it and how much they use the new open space that is available to them,” he said. This is to be a new “living room” for the people of the national capital region (and beyond), he says.

This renovation is just the beginning key events for the NAC. In November the Creation Fund, (with about $25 million to spend on developing world class performance works) will open for business and in 2019 the new Indigenous Theatre will open its first season in the 50th year of the NAC.

On July 1, the public is invited to come into the NAC and explore the new digs which when finished will addnabout 60,000 square feet to the existing 1.1 million square feet. There will be a barbecue on Freiman Lane, a ribbon cutting featuring Charles, Prince of Wales and 150 Canadians from all walks of life including artists, architects, construction workers, NAC staff and patrons. The ceremony will feature performances by Quebec music-man Gregory Charles, jazz singer Dione Taylor, NAC Orchestra Music Director Alexander Shelley and the NACO Brass, the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers, along with young dancers from Propeller Dance and the National Ballet School of Canada. The new space will open to the public after that and inside the centre there will be performances by the NAC Orchestra along with Jan Lisiecki, James Ehnes, Dione Taylor and Daniel Clark Bouchard. As well there will be a performance by a 300-voice choir.

The building will be open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on July 2 with performances by children’s entertainer Carmen Campagne, the Dakhká Khwaán Dancers and Celeste Levis, along with a family craft zone. More information:


Before: At work on the new National Arts Centre. Photo: Matthew Usherwood. 

The Renovation by the numbers

5,500: Total size in square metres (60,000 square feet) of new space located in what is called the Elgin Street atrium.

1,600: Total size in square metres (18,000 square feet) of renovated space such as the Fourth Stage.

200: The most construction contractors working on the site at the height of construction.

500,000: Estimated total number of person hours working on the project by the end of 2017.

2,630: Square metres of glazed curtain wall on the new facade. That is about one and three-quarters the size of a 1,513 square metre NHL rink.

2: Types of glass used. Vision glass (see through) spanning 2,290 square metres. There are 340 square metres of spandrel panels, which are opaque glass panels that cover various parts of the building such as interior partitions and mechanical and electrical services.

1: The amount in metric tons of the largest piece of glass in the new facade. It is 2.4 metres wide and 5.8 metres tall.Each unit or sections consists of a 10 mm glass panel, a 12 mm air space and two 17.5 mm laminated glass panels.

15.7: Total cost in millions of the new glass facade. It is the most expensive part of the project, just under 20 per cent of the total cost.

21 and 80: The number of women’s washrooms before the addition and the number after.

26 and 68: Men’s washrooms before and after construction.

4: Universal washrooms.

247: Roof /ceiling wood coffers in the new atrium.

20: The longest span of a single coffer in metres. It weighs 12,700 kg.

15: Typical height, in metres, of the columns on the north facade.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.