Brock University opens new performing and fine arts school
The Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts recently opened at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. The $46-million transformation of a heritage property brings 500 students plus teachers and staff downtown from Brock’s main suburban campus. The arts school is designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects and complements the adjacent soon-to-open FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre—also by Diamond Schmitt—to create a new cultural hub for the Niagara region.
The five-storey brick and timber-frame Canada Hair Cloth Company building from the 1880s and two large sheds from the 1920s have been preserved and fully upgraded to provide inspiring spaces for students of music, dramatic and visual arts. The centre houses state-of-the-art studios, digital labs, performance halls, recital areas, lecture halls and design and workshop spaces. Original wooden floors, metal columns, stone and masonry walls provide the palette for contemporary finishes as well as a newly built structure that houses a 250-seat flexible studio theatre, art gallery and lounge.
“The design is very much inspired by the remarkable heritage structures and extraordinary river valley setting,” said Donald Schmitt, Principal at Diamond Schmitt Architects. “We sought to create a 21st-century learning environment for the arts that retains a strong connection with the past and that also integrates with the renewal of downtown St. Catharines.” The Welland Canal once flowed next to the textile factory and a millrace directed water into the building to power the looms.
Working with the natural slope of the site, the school has two entrances on different levels. The main entrance on what was the rear of the textile factory provides access to a lobby, art gallery and circulation corridor for the long, narrow building. The upper level entrance to the theatre opens onto green space that connects the Brock facility with the city-run performing arts centre. Brock will use two of the four theatres in the centre for daytime lectures, music recital and performance. Brock chose not to include food services in the facility to further integrate student life and activity with downtown St. Catharines.
“This project was always about vision, and about partnerships,” said University President Jack Lightstone. “This phenomenon happened because committed and generous people made it happen. As a result, we are all witnesses to a dramatic change that is like very few transitions we will ever again see in our lifetimes.”
One of the design challenges to repurpose the factory, which made coat linings and parachute silks, was to accommodate a large open-floor painting studio. “We removed the ceiling from the top floor to gain extra height and working with our structural engineers devised diamond-shaped trusses that enabled us to take away existing columns and free up the floor space,” said Michael Leckman, Principal at Diamond Schmitt. The visual arts department features painting, drawing and foundation studios, a digital media lab, photography darkroom and student gallery.
The black-box theatre features a rolling gantry that allows students to position lighting and sets throughout the versatile space without the use of ladders or forklifts. Retractable seating accommodates different performance configurations, including theatre-in-the-round. The dramatic arts facilities also include a green room, scenery and costume shop, scenography studio and four rehearsal studios. The cantilevered volume of the theatre sits on concrete columns that reference the unusual St. Catharines vernacular of stilt-supported structures along the main St. Paul Street.
Music rehearsal studios are constructed “box within a box” to achieve sound isolation from one practice room to the next and have acoustic gypsum panels that further absorb noise and vibration. The music department also has a cognitive music lab and a scores library.
The entire building is designed to Facility Accessibility Design Standards, which exceed the Ontario Building Code requirements. Accessibility features include wide halls and automatic doors, low signage, fire alarms and water fountains, ramps, double railings, talking elevators and large washroom stalls.
Completing the 95,000 square feet of program space is a learning commons, computer commons, seminar rooms and a 75-seat smart lecture/praxis space for innovative teaching for the Centre for Studies in Arts and Culture program.