May 1, 2015
by Canadian Architect
A panoramic view of the Confederation Centre of the Arts exhibits the bold approach taken by the architects, who crafted the buildings as a series of massive volumes turned inward toward the central Memorial Hall. Photo courtesy Confederation Centre of the Arts
ARCHITECT Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Sise
LOCATION Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
As the first of Canada’s Centennial Buildings, the Fathers of Confederation Buildings Trust (which now operates under the name Confederation Centre of the Arts) set an important precedent for subsequent Centennial projects, both in terms of their cultural program and their adoption of a Brutalist idiom. Its programmatic elements—library, theatre and art gallery—are expressed as discrete volumes rising from a podium elevated above street level and surrounding, on three sides, the dominant void of Memorial Hall on the concourse below. Its fourth side is bounded by Province House, site of the first Confederation Conference in September 1864.
However, while the material treatment and height of the new complex defer to the historic Province House and the intimate scale of Charlottetown, the complex as a whole suggests a more aloof attitude to its small-town setting, since the building massing does not address the surrounding streets, but instead defines a fortress protectively enveloping the activities it encloses. This sense of separation is further emphasized by an elevated podium that isolates the Fathers of Confederation Memorial Buildings in their constructed landscape.
Even though the buildings do not adopt the rough, unfinished concrete expression usually associated with Brutalist architecture, their massive volumetric forms and aloofness to context have led to their characterization as representative of this movement. Brutalism was subsequently embraced by many of the architects designing Canada’s 1967 Centennial projects. Although it was already a dominant idiom in global architecture, its anti-historical, anti-hierarchical informality came to be understood as an appropriate expression for a Canada that was shedding its colonial past to forge a new identity as a culturally progressive, democratically transparent and independent modern nation.
As a result, subsequent Centennial projects all turn their backs to their urban contexts, emphasizing their primary reading as landscape, encouraged by carefully framed photographs that illustrate their dislocation from urban contexts, which are consequently rarely represented. This focus on landscape has profound implications for national identity: the urban contexts to which they turn their backs are largely artifacts of colonization, while the landscape remains emphatically Canadian. In addition to its prescient and pioneering role in the creation of a Canadian architectural identity associated with the 1967 Centennial, the project has also been praised for a variety of technical innovations at the time of its construction. The project description in the Canadian Register of Historic Places states that “when it was built in 1964, it was highly innovative in its stage design and acoustics, and featured state-of-the-art lighting and construction techniques.” The complex continues to fulfill its original function, with the performing arts theatre, art gallery and library all in continuous operation. Upgrades to mechanical and electrical services have resulted in some minor cosmetic alterations to the building’s exterior, and theatre interiors have recently been updated. Otherwise, while some minor revisions to the building have not fundamentally changed the building’s appearance, extensive landscaping and other interventions outside Memorial Hall have altered the character of the original exterior spaces, which were once extremely spare.
Known for its innovations in stage design, the Centre enjoys layered spaces that effortlessly balance monumentality and intimacy evident in few other places in Canada. The sculptural interplay of abstract building forms with courtyards and landscape terraces is expressed in a robust yet refined Brutalist language of concrete and sandstone. It subtly integrates the neighbouring historic Province House into one unified block perfectly scaled to Charlottetown’s urban core. Fifty years on, lovingly maintained with subtle adjustments enhancing its functions and architectural qualities, Confederation Centre remains both a key fixture of the daily life of Charlottetown, and an icon of the optimistic spirit of Canada’s Centennial era.
A panoramic view of the Confederation Centre of the Arts exhibits the bold approach taken by the architects, who crafted the buildings as a
series of massive volumes turned inward toward the central Memorial Hall. Photo courtesy Confederation Centre of the Arts