Canadian Architect

Feature

Making a Scene

A new arts centre is a sophisticated addition to Mount Allison University's campus—and a valuable asset for the town of Sackville, New Brunswick.

March 1, 2015
by Peter Sealy

A courtyard entrance welcomes students to the new facility.

A courtyard entrance welcomes students to the new facility.

PROJECT Purdy Crawford Centre for the Arts, Sackville, New Brunswick
ARCHITECTS Zeidler Partnership Architects (Lead Architect) with Martin Patriquin Architect Inc. (Associated Architect)
TEXT Peter Sealy
PHOTOS Tom Arban

Zeidler Partnership Architects’ new Purdy Crawford Centre for the Arts is an ambitious—and controversial—addition to the campus of Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. Housing the university’s Fine Arts and Drama programs, the Crawford Centre is part of an ongoing visual reconfiguration of Sackville’s townscape.

First, the controversy. The Crawford Centre sits upon the site of the demolished Memorial Library, a 1927 Tudor building designed by Andrew Randall Cobb. Built through a public subscription as the university’s war memorial, Cobb’s building was much beloved for its elegant proportions, artful stonework and its familiar presence at the northwest corner of the Mount Allison campus. As Bob Eaton, MRAIC, a local architect and campaigner to save the library notes, “it was the iconic Mount Allison building.” While the library was no longer used as such and had been awkwardly amalgamated into a larger student centre, its removal provoked fierce debate among students, alumni and town residents, as well as an unsuccessful legal challenge.

A 2002 campus master plan by Diamond Schmitt Architects identified the location as the ideal site for a long-desired university arts centre, and called for the library’s incorporation into a new structure. Mount Allison considered this option to be both unworkable and unaffordable—a claim contested by some—and pressed ahead with the design for an entirely new building.

The choice of red sandstone cladding ties the Purdy Crawford Centre to other campus structures, including the adjacent Bennett Building.

The choice of red sandstone cladding ties the Purdy Crawford Centre to other campus structures, including the adjacent Bennett Building.

While the Memorial Library’s absence remains a loss for many, now that the new building is unveiled, it can be judged on its own merits. With its significant $30-million construction budget and sophisticated design, the Crawford Centre is clearly a cut above Mount Allison’s other recent buildings. For university president Robert Campbell, the Crawford Centre is a long-term contribution, “addressing the present need for quality facilities while respecting the past through its use of traditional materials” and setting “an architectural and aesthetic standard for the future.” Following Aldo van Eyck’s mantra that “the village is a house and the house is a village,” lead architect Tarek El-Khatib, FRAIC, and his team smartly organized the Crawford Centre into three blocks: workshop and studio spaces to the south; offices, classrooms and additional studios to the northeast; and the theatre with its annexes to the northwest. An 11.8-metre-high lobby connects these blocks.

A sculptural staircase adds a dynamic presence to the main space.

A sculptural staircase adds a dynamic presence to the main space.

A lot is asked of this interstice, which alternately functions as the building’s circulation hub, an arts exhibition space and the theatre’s foyer. It also oscillates between formal and informal uses. One can imagine the weekday traffic of students coming to and from the building’s classrooms giving way to swanky receptions in the evening, while after hours, the space serves as a central hub for the studio culture well-known to art students. A snaking staircase that links the building’s three levels traverses the void. Negotiating the space’s multiple functions, the stair’s elegant combination of black steel, white oak and woven wire mesh succeeds in being both casually playful and nonchalantly elegant. The lobby’s exposed ceiling—with its open grid of metal beams and carefully arranged mechanical services, uniformly finished in flat black—is striking, and the care taken in its detailing commendable. While maintaining a constant height, the internal space modulates in plan, widening to accommodate the theatre entrance and to frame a Venturiesque view of Main Street.

The theatre includes a strip of windows that can be blacked out for performances.

The theatre includes a strip of windows that can be blacked out for performances.

The Motyer-Fancy Theatre maintains all the best qualities of a black box without actually being one. Glass windows in its side elevation dignify the daily grind of rehearsals with abundant natural light and a visual connection between theatre and townscape. Its flexible seating system allows multiple configurations for performances, while all external light can be occluded using screens placed inside the double-pane windows. With their rough texture and varied colour, the recycled wood boards that line the theatre stand out from the white walls elsewhere in the Crawford Centre’s interior.

The red sandstone cladding is contained in minimalist black frames.

The red sandstone cladding is contained in minimalist black frames.

From the exterior, the Crawford Centre’s three sections break apart like puzzle pieces, framing a series of entry courtyards. The outer walls deploy the university’s signature red sandstone in black aluminum frames, which celebrate the material while subordinating it to the logic of modern construction. Surrounding the courtyards, where the internal spaces seemingly punch outward beyond the building’s envelope, white fibre-cement panels are used. The clear articulation of the building’s three volumes makes it feel like a precinct—what El-Khatib calls a “village for the arts.”

The composition is least convincing from the south, where it sits at the bottom of a sloping campus quadrangle. The uneven elevation and the unfortunate absence of an entrance on the quad result from two logistical requirements: control of light entering the studios, and the need for a loading dock on Salem Street. However, the superb quality of the natural light that bathes the studios and workshops through their clerestory windows more than compensates.

A secondary entrance to the facility doubles as a courtyard.

A secondary entrance to the facility doubles as a courtyard.

El-Khatib designed the Crawford Centre as a diaphanous entrance to the university campus. The Crawford Centre’s two principal entrances combine with its internal space to form a pathway into Mount Allison. Aligned with a major campus axis, the east entrance—which will likely be the one most frequently used by students—is located at the end of a deep courtyard, which El-Khatib describes as an “exterior room” between the building’s south and northeast wings.

View of the building from Main Street.

View of the building from Main Street.

The main north entrance doubles as access to the theatre, which is appropriate given the location of a large parking lot diagonally across Main Street. Most visitors will first see the Crawford Centre as they descend Main Street from the Trans-Canada Highway; the north elevation, with its framed sandstone expanse punctuated by the entrance, visually marks this moment of arrival to both the town and the campus with great aplomb. However, the landscaping needed to negotiate the 2.7-metre change in level between the north entrance and Main Street has been carried out in a perfunctory manner. The conventional black iron railings lack the inventiveness of those used for the lobby’s interior staircase, while the narrow sidewalk at street level fails to match the generous terrace at the level of the entrance. These landscaping details do not adequately support the building in its prominent position at the entrance to Sackville and as a gateway to the university.

While change seems to come slowly to this town of 5,500 inhabitants, the last decade has seen the loss or transformation of many of Sackville’s major landmarks. Last summer, the town’s most well-known symbols, the Radio Canada International transmission towers on the marshland by the highway, were demolished. At the town’s main intersection, the United Church, built in 1875, is presently for sale for $1, likely to be demolished and replaced with apartments. The congregation has moved into the neighbouring town hall, left vacant thanks to the construction of a new municipal services building in 2012. The construction of the Crawford Centre contributes to this saga, both as a symbol of loss—but also as a sign of renewal.

Studios and workshops feature clerestory lighting and ample wall space for storage and pin-ups.

Studios and workshops feature clerestory lighting and ample wall space for storage and pin-ups.

Does what is gained by the addition of the Crawford Centre outweigh what has been lost in the demolition of the Memorial Library? In consolidating the Fine Arts and Drama programs under a single roof and providing them with impressive facilities, Mount Allison has reaffirmed its commitment as a liberal arts college to these disciplines. And Zeidler’s design shows an admirable degree of care across multiple scales of intervention, from the building’s larger formal gestures to the detailing of its interior spaces.

The entrance facing Main Street is a lantern-like beacon at night.

The entrance facing Main Street is a lantern-like beacon at night.

It is hard to know to what extent a town such as Sackville can succeed in choreographing its visual appearance—and whether small towns should even attempt such a task. The Crawford Centre is a welcome participant in such a discussion: a decidedly contemporary building that, through its design decisions, with time will become as rooted in its locale as its older neighbours.

Peter Sealy is a doctoral candidate in architectural history at Harvard University. He grew up in Sackville, New Brunswick.

Client Mount Allison University | Architect Team Tarek El-Khatib, Gerald Stein, Ivan Munoz, Kent Eliuk, Allan Litovitz, Maryam Madsen, Rick Mugford, Isaac Mak, Eric Wong, Lindsay Brown | Structural BMR Structural Engineering | Mechanical Crandall Engineering Inc. | Electrical AEC Engineering Ltd | Landscape EXP Architects Inc. | Interiors Zeidler Partnership Architects | Contractor EllisDon | Theatre Theatre Consultants Collaborative Inc. | Masonry PJ Materials Consultants Ltd. | Civil J.M. Giffin Engineering Inc. | Acoustics Aercoustics Engineering Ltd. | Green Globes Ecovert | Testing Gemtec | Area 50,000 m2 | Budget $30 M | Completion October 2014