Canadian Architect

Feature

Commanding Performance

The Design of Canada's First Opera House in Downtown Toronto Faces Considerable Controversy and Heated Debate.

September 1, 2006
by Canadian Architect

Project Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ontario

Architect Diamond and Schmitt Architects

Text John Bentley Mays

Photos Tim Griffith, Elizabeth Gyde

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto officially opened in June to applause for the acoustic design of the building’s auditorium (see sidebar on the R. Fraser Elliott Hall), and near-universal disappointment about the structure’s architectural presence in the city.

“Outside blah, inside awe,” barked a headline in The Globe and Mail, oversimplifying–but not by much–the review by architecture critic Lisa Rochon that ran under it. “So regular, so hard, so profane are the brick elevations running along Queen Street West, Richmond Street and York Street in downtown Toronto that the building and its significance as Canada’s first opera house disappear from civic consciousness,” Rochon wrote. “The monumental glass wall is an exhilarating addition to University Avenue, but it can hardly be expected to forgive all. A touch of the spectacular on all four sides of the centre would have gone a long way to argue the noble cause of culture.”

When I asked him after the opening about this and similar questioning of the $150-million project, architect A.J. Diamond said of his critics: “They don’t get it. There’s a kind of provincial attitude out there that wants spectacle…of course, there is a place for pavilion-like buildings. It depends on where they are, but you do not do it on every block. You do not make a city out of iconic pieces.” When I raised the topic with Richard Bradshaw, the general manager of the Canadian Opera Company–the Centre’s principal tenant–he turned aside the criticism with a milder answer: the Four Seasons looks good enough, and if it’s not iconic, then neither are many great performance spaces around the world.

In certain respects, Diamond has made his penchant for understatement work to the advantage of the whole scheme. The five-tier interior of the auditorium, created by the architect in concert with Fisher Dachs Associates, a New York theatre-design firm, and acoustician Robert Essert, is an attractively sculpted, fluent arrangement of some 2,000 fixed seats and moveable chairs. Traditional opera-house seating forms–the open fan, and so many horseshoe tiers stacked around a cylindrical volume–have given way here to a graceful array of curved shelves backing upward and away from the stage and orchestra pit. Instead of striking an aristocratic note with old-fashioned crimson and gold, Diamond provides a less ceremonious, more middle-class ambience with harmonized greys and tans, muted metal and warm wood tones of the R. Fraser Elliott Hall. The acoustic brightness and general spareness of the auditorium are enhanced by the absence of carpeting–the floors are wooden throughout–and by pumping air into the interior via very quiet, individually located displacement ventilation secreted beneath the seats.

Yet another place where subtlety works well is in the exclusive Henry N.R. Jackman Lounge, reserved for patrons and for special events. Though destined never to be seen by many Torontonians, and not well connected to the rest of the building, this is nevertheless one of the most beautiful new rooms in Toronto: a clear oblong of space on the north side of the project, offering excellent views of Queen Street West, its cars and streetcars, and of Osgoode Hall across the way. Along with the Centre’s lobby, the Jackman Lounge affords closeups of the clear glass panes and refined clamping structures of the striking German curtain wall.

While historic performance halls are indeed often less than grand, this condition is by no means the rule. Frank Gehry’s spectacular new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, for example, stands in a venerable tradition of show-offish, high-style houses that include Schinkel’s majestic Schauspielhaus in Berlin (1821), the Paris Opera by Charles Garnier (1857-1874) and Wallace Harrison’s Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Centre in New York City (1966). This is clearly the tradition of flair and grandeur that Diamond was deliberately designing against. Attacking his Four Seasons for its earnest stolidity, as some critics have done, is like reviling a little black dress simply because it’s not a fancy ball gown. There is clearly room in the urban landscape for both black dresses and grand gowns, and there is no doubt in my mind that what Diamond was aiming for in the Four Seasons Centre was the former.

But what if a fabulous ball gown is what dowdy Toronto needs? What if that was what the public deserved, for its contribution of $35 million to the project costs? Writing in the Toronto Star, critic Christopher Hume argued exactly this point. While “the city has made an opera house a condition of maturity, even of its own coming of age,” the Four Seasons “never rises to the occasion. That’s not to say it fails, but neither can it be considered a success. To those for whom an opera house is simply a venue for musical theatre, it will be welcomed with open arms. To those for whom an opera house is a symbol of civic greatness, it will be a disappointment.”

In my mind, there has been too much talk in Toronto of “symbols of civic greatness” ever since the current crop of expensive new cultural facilities began to grow on the local cityscape. Erecting grandiose “symbols” can be a substitute for the more laborious, less showbizzy task of carefully mending and reinforcing damaged urban fabric. In our conversations about the house, Diamond repeatedly expressed his conviction that “continuity” was the necessary element in the design–a deployment of glass and black brick to create monumental connections between the downtown office towers and University Avenue.

Yet after Diamond’s intentions are given their due, there still remains the question of how well the Four Seasons Centre fulfills its mission as “continuity” within the network of downtown hardware. Looking at the building with this question in mind, one finds disconnects more obvious than the hoped-for linkages. The building shows a notably rude, vacuous side to Richmond Street West and, across it, to the entrance of the Hilton Hotel. A proposed $500,000 glass walkway along Richmond had to be scrapped for budgetary reasons–though it’s unlikely that this feature would have significantly improved the unattractive south faade of the project. The rear end of the building backing York Street is similarly blank–though asking more of the rear is perhaps inappropriate: the trucks have got to dock somewhere. I suppose it could be argued–but I’m not inclined to do so–that these inert faades constitute a kind of “continuity” with what’s around them: the battalion of stodgy, blunt office buildings that stomp up University Avenue, for example.

The most objectionable ground-level faade of the Centre, however, rises on Queen Street West. This north side is directly across from Osgoode Hall’s dignified Victorian court buildings (1829-1973) and its fine greensward behind William G. Storm’s 1866 iron gates and fence. The address, at a sensitive place on one of Toronto’s most historic and important avenues, demanded better of the Four Seasons than some backlit signage advertising Centre events and a coffee shop–the intended use of the stingy little retail space closer to the box office. A second retail outlet, farther east along the block, is similarly mean. No matter what goes into it, the vibrancy of the street will not be enhanced.

Nor does the University Avenue faade, on which Diamond and all friendly commentators rest much of the case for the building, offer the connection to the city we could have hoped for. The small, unassuming and serviceable entry to the City Room (as the lobby will be known until a naming sponsor is found) is off a small, unassuming plaza at the corner of Queen Street and University Avenue, leaving the dramatic cascade of low-iron (hence low-colour) glass an unpunc
tuated wall alongside the sidewalk. On nights when a performance is taking place in the hall, this faade will be animated by patrons gathering in the building-high lobby and moving along the suspended gala staircase. Light will flood from the City Room onto the street, transforming the lobby into the “lantern” Diamond wants it to be. But for those witnessing this spectacle from the avenue, this activity will probably seem to be something from a foreign, parallel world, like the movement of exotic fish in a glorious tank: lively and colourful, surely, but sealed off from the ordinary life of the street and the city. This is not, by the way, a damning argument against Diamond’s University Avenue faade. In a city so well supplied with coffee shops and restaurants, public libraries and parks and other sociable places, we can surely afford some institutions that look as frankly elitist as the art they showcase.

Ironically, however, the air of monumental exclusivity that pervades the Four Seasons Centre on all sides reinforces the populist suspicion that opera is nowadays an amusement chiefly for the socially prominent and very rich–when, in fact, this marvellous art form is probably enjoying the biggest vogue since its conquest of bourgeois musical imagination in the late 19th century. This is a moment of feverish opera house construction around the world, with new halls by prominent architects recently or soon to be opened in Cardiff, Singapore, Copenhagen, Dallas and Oslo. Santiago Calatrava’s Auditorio was unveiled in Tenerife in 2003, Dominique Perrault is at work on a second Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, and Norman Foster is doing Dallas.

“Thanks to television and digital recording,” British opera critic and producer Adrian Mourby has written by way of explanation for this phenomenon, “a small group of primarily Italian operas, and an equally small group of largely Italianate singers, have recruited a new audience, which keeps on growing… moreover, opera has become international in the same way that football is. The big stars…command huge audiences. A new house attracts the big names, and the big names pull in tourists from all over the world.” To Mourby’s list of causes, we could add: the lustre and brilliance of contemporary singing, the high and eccentric artistic ingenuity lavished on operatic stage design over the last 30 years (with inevitably controversial results), and, of course, the pleasure that opera gives anyone who loves a good story wonderfully told.

Perhaps, over the next few seasons, the Centre will unbend a bit. The 90 lunch-hour recitals planned for the hall’s first year–events to be staged on the floating staircase that doubles as the 150-seat Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre–will afford a casual introduction to the building for numerous downtown workers and others. With any luck, these people will help begin the long work of knitting the opera house into the living city, transfiguring it from just another high-cultural destination into a vivid new interface between art and urban activity. If the auditorium rings as true and clear in actual performance as the music critics believe it may, the sound will surely become the most compelling argument for the house, making many criticisms of it (including mine) seem beside the point. But all this remains to be seen–and heard–when the audience at this autumn’s inaugural operatic performance is hushed by dimming lights and the rippling, pulsing prelude to Wagner’s Rheingold–and the magnificent Der Ring des Nibelungen itself–begins.

John Bentley Mays is an architecture critic and writes regularly for The Globe and Mail.

Client Canadian Opera House Corporation

Architect Team A.J. Diamond, Gary Mccluskie, Michael Treacy, Matthew Lella, Duncan Bates, Sydney Browne, Thomas Caro, Shouheng Chen, Martin Davidson, Tony Diodati, Charles Gagnon, Branka Gazibara, Suzanne Graham, Des Gregg, Michelle Gucciardi, Kurt Hanzlik, Paddy Harrington, Forde Johnson, Jonathan King, Winga Lam, Michael Leckman, Gabriel Li, Ana Maria Llanos, Sarah Low, Mike Lukasik, Leo Mieles, Geoff Moote, George Przybylski, Malani Rao, Hans Rittmansperger, Val Rogojine, Jon Soules, Caroline Spigelski, Goran Sudetic, Eric Sziraki, Adam Thom, Sybil Wa, Jessie Waese

Structural Halcrow Yolles

Mechanical Crossey Engineering Ltd.

Electrical Mulvey & Banani International Inc.

Landscape Dutoit Allsop Hillier

Interiors Diamond and Schmitt Architects Incorporated

Contractor PCL Constructors Canada Inc.

Acoustician Sound Space Design–Bob Essert

Acoustical Team Aercoustics, Wilson Ihrig, Engineering Harmonics

Theatre Planning & Design Fisher Dachs Associates

Cost Consultants Vermeulens

Traffic Ba Group

Project Manager Stantec

Food Service Consultant Van Velzen Radchenko

Specifications Brian Ballantyne Specifications

Geotechnical Terraprobe

Shoring Isherwood Associates

Area 240,000 Ft2

Budget $102m

Completion June 2006




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