Class Act

Isabel Bader Theatre, Victoria University, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario

Lett/Smith Architects

Situated near the Queen’s Park cluster of cultural institutions in Toronto–including the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art–the Isabel Bader Theatre at Victoria University contributes a highly adaptable space to an area whose other amenities are soon to be transformed by the designs of Daniel Libeskind (ROM) and Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (Gardiner). The small venue also provides a much-needed multi-use auditorium for the downtown and the University of Toronto, of which Victoria University is a part. As such, its front entrance on Charles Street West establishes a public faade of access and exposure while the back, facing the original Richardsonian Romanesque Victoria University building to the south, affords visitors a panoramic view of the Toronto skyline. In the immediate foreground, views look into a landscaped courtyard, a campus quadrangle sheltered from the busy traffic on Charles Street and Avenue Road. This quadrangle offers reciprocal views, particularly in the evening, of the indoor activity in the theatre’s foyer. A walkway on the building’s west side, used as a service vehicle route but also as a student pedestrian route to the south campus, has been enhanced with stone paving and low-level lighting.

The traditional material palette of nearby Collegiate Gothic and Richardsonian Romanesque university buildings is reflected in the architects’ choice of exterior materials such as grey Owen Sound limestone, copper and wood, all of which are also used extensively in Taylor Hariri Pontarini Architects’ McKinsey and Company Canadian Headquarters building across the street from the theatre (see CA Feb. 2001). Together, the two new buildings not only complement their historic surroundings, but serve to establish a coherent response that combines contemporary formal strategies with a traditional material vocabulary. The Bader Theatre extends its material palette to include exposed concrete columns and stucco walls, which are destined to become overgrown by ivy, again in keeping with the collegiate surroundings. Generous glazing, including the frosted bay window on the north elevation, is meant to allow the foyer activity to become part of the street experience. A terrace on Charles Street also acts as an overflow space in warm weather.

Continuity between interior and exterior is established with the use of similar materials inside and out, especially in the lobbies, and the tall foyer space that wraps around the auditorium to further reinforce a direct relationship between the exterior and the public spaces inside. An overlook from the mezzanine to the main foyer below exaggerates the sense of height in the lobby, emphasizing its grand public nature.

Rich polished Jatoba wood lattice screens are layered overtop the auditorium’s poured concrete walls, enhancing the hall’s visual delights and acoustic performance.

Known for their design of grander venues such as Toronto’s celebrated Princess of Wales Theatre, (see CA August, 1993), at the Isabel Bader Theatre Lett/Smitt Architects have created a three-level, 500-seat auditorium that functions as a Film Festival-calibre cinema, an intimate concert hall, a wired lecture hall for the student population, and even a stage fitted with floor boxes for video projection. Back-of-house and support features include three catwalks for accessing sound and lighting equipment, a loading dock and holding area for moving and storing stage sets, dressing rooms with multi-floor passages between them for actors’ changes during performances, and two screening projectors. This high degree of built-in flexibility addresses the University’s complex needs for a new lecture hall and live performance venue within a single space, realizing economies in the delivery of program facilities without sacrificing performance or architectural quality.