Instrumental Composition

PROJECT Royal Conservatory of Music Telus Centre for Performance and Learning, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects
TEXT Elsa Lam
PHOTOS Eduard Hueber, Tom Arban

Fully opened last fall, the Telus Centre for Performance and Learning buzzes with activity. International performers grace Koerner Hall, music students of all ages fill the studios, and the smartly dressed mingle at receptions in lobbies overlooking the city.

The new addition, with its world-class performance venues, academic studios, and vibrant public spaces, has been almost 20 years in the making. In 1991, the Royal Conservatory of Music commissioned plans for a major extension to its century-old Romanesque Revival headquarters on Bloor Street, in the heart of downtown Toronto. Led by designer Marianne McKenna, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg’s original scheme proposed a central courtyard flanked by a 550-seat concert hall on one side and an academic wing on the other (see CA, December 1991). When funding was finally secured in 2003, it came with a mandate to double the capacity of the concert space. Strategies for building on the tight urban site changed radically. “Maintaining and defending the vision, riding the waves of construction challenges, detours in financing, and client requests over [the following] six-year period,” says McKenna, was “no small feat.”

In the resulting plan, developed by McKenna with project architect Bob Sims, the 1,135-seat Koerner Hall dominates in area. It’s wrapped by a series of new light-filled lobbies that look east to the Royal Ontario Museum and south over the treed canopy of the University of Toronto’s Philosopher’s Walk. On the west side, a five-storey wing houses practice and instructional studios, and a box office opens onto Bloor Street.

Despite its size–more than double the footprint of the 1881 historic edifice (originally called McMaster Hall, now called Ihnatowycz Hall)–the recent addition is a surprisingly discreet presence in the city. The bulk of its mass is tucked out of view, and its carefully calibrated heights defer to the heritage structure, whose turrets are still visible from down the block. Complementing the adjacent red-brick faade and dark-grey roof of the original building, a Spanish-slate-clad volume hovers over the transparent glass box office entrance on Bloor Street. The understated presence gives the facility a quietly contemporary public face. Facing Philosopher’s Walk, an important path linking Bloor Street to the University of Toronto’s St. George Campus, the new facility dissolves into an airy glass curtain wall and offers a second entrance to students approaching the building from the much-loved landscaped promenade.

The Royal Conservatory’s hybrid mandate supports both musical performance and instruction. Therefore, the design strives to create physical connections between those spheres. The key site where this occurs is a four-storey atrium at the former basement grade, connecting the main entrances and spanning between old and new structures.

Open to the public, the skylit pedestrian court does triple duty as circulation core, study space, and gallery for the Koerner family’s collection of antique instruments. On the ground floor, an independent caf presents a convivial spot for music students to compare class notes and concert-goers to pause over an espresso. In the distance, glass partitions face into the studio block, affording glimpses of students heading to their lessons. Above, walkways lead from the box office to the concert hall and bridge into Ihnatowycz Hall. A series of small balconies extend from the historic stairwell, acting as mini-stages overlooking the atrium space/circulation spine during gala events. Remaining respectful, all new connections were built out from window openings in the heritage building, and even the skylight spacing matches the quirky rhythm of the century-old structural bays. The concert hall’s slightly canted position in plan opens up the atrium, inviting light to pour in from Philosopher’s Walk to create an inviting court for the broader community.

The gap between Koerner Hall and Ihnatowycz Hall serves a key technical function: providing the acoustic decoupling necessary to create a top-calibre performance venue. In terms of construction, Koerner Hall is effectively a separate building. The N1 acoustic-rated structure floats on thick rubber pads that isolate it from the rumbling subway which operates almost directly below the site, and from noisy chillers for the hockey arena next door. It’s also protected from teaching and practice studios that could interfere with performances.

Inside Koerner Hall, sound design is tightly integrated into every detail. The project budget was tight, recalls McKenna, but the client refused to cut corners on acoustics. “They said: ‘If you need it for acoustic reasons, you have to do it.’ ” So, she reasoned, “we made everything acoustic.”

Working in tight collaboration with Bob Essert of Sound Space Design and theatre consultant Anne Minors, McKenna and Sims developed a scheme that merges architecture and acoustics into every aspect of the concert hall, from its overall configuration to the treatment of each surface. For instance, softly undulating plaster sidewalls stemmed from a need to provide textured, shaped surfaces for acoustic reasons. Sims crafted the first prototypes at home, casting plaster on stretched fabric to create pillow-like forms. To create the finished walls, burlap-lined silicone moulds were used, giving the sidewalls a warm, variegated look. “The panels needed to be extremely hard and dense for acoustics, but we wanted to give them the appearance of lightness and softness,” says Sims. Double-layered oak balcony fronts arose from a similar process: they’re slightly curved and finely scraped to disperse both light and sound waves, giving both the panels and the balcony fronts a warm glow.

A soaring canopy above Koerner Hall represents the most stunning fruit of this collaborative process. The veil of twisting oak “strings” ascends from the stage, forming a backdrop for the chorus at the first balcony, then rising to hover over the audience. Conceived early in the design by McKenna, the veil creates a virtual ceiling floating within the larger volume of the hall. Seven metres above this, the true ceiling provides the necessary height to optimize acoustics. The ribbon-like forms allow low- and mid-frequency sound waves to pass unobstructed through to the higher ceiling, while scattering the highest frequency harmonics throughout the concert hall.

The canopy conceals such technical devices as a sound-reflecting ceiling suspended over the stage area (which helps musicians to hear each other), lighting, and rigging systems. During acoustic orchestral performances, the room maintains a clean appearance, while devices such as a central speaker cluster and a speech reinforcement speaker can be lowered into view when needed for amplified performances. Together with the hall’s base acoustics, the myriad setups housed above the canopy allow the location to accommodate a wide range of sounds and performances. The opening season celebrates those possibilities by hosting events ranging from Royal Conservatory Orchestra concerts to appearances by legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar and former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page.

As a 1,135-seat venue, Koerner Hall fills a unique niche in Toronto: it’s large enough to host top-level performers, yet small enough to offer the intimacy of a private venue. This effect is carefully nurtured by a multitude of decisions in the layout. Starting with a shoebox configuration, the designers chose a mid-sized (rather than full orchestra) stage and ensconced it firmly within the space. Seats are arrayed on all sides, including behind the stage–a move typical of classical theatre layouts, including Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. On the upper balconies, single
and double rows of seats pack in additional views. “There’s lots of front rows in this room,” says Minors, noting how direct sightlines of the stage make audiences feel more involved with the performance. Curved lines–from balcony fronts to side aisles–also contribute to a feeling of enclosure that wouldn’t be present with a more rectilinear concert hall configuration.

Links between the audience and performers are additionally encouraged at more subtle levels. The slightly “fishtailed” parterre layout, along with a raked floor that becomes imperceptibly steeper at the top, contribute to visual cues that shorten the apparent distance between audience and stage. This sensation is echoed in the acoustics of the space, which Essert describes as a “fast” sound. “The performer doesn’t wait for the sound, it comes back so quickly it becomes part of their performance,” he explains. For spectators, he fashioned a corresponding condition where “the audience is immersed in the sound without being drowned in it.”

The enthusiasm of performers and audiences alike testifies to the successful achievement of these effects. “[Audiences] are saying, ‘this hall sounds so good,'” reports Mervon Mehta, artistic director for the Conservatory. “I think really what they’re reacting to is the visceral energy that comes off the stage and hits them; they haven’t been hit like that before.” The intimacy of the space and the sound force listeners to be actively engaged with the performance; conversely, musicians welcome the chance to forge connections with an attentive audience through eye contact.

A similar merging of acoustics and architecture informs Conservatory Hall, a secondary performance and instructional space with flexible seating capacity for 150 patrons. Perched over the box office, the room offers a spectacular panorama down busy Bloor Street, while being completely insulated from the roar of traffic. The room looks deceptively simple, but as Sims explains, “it’s more complicated in its structure than Koerner Hall.” To protect against external vibrations, the team constructed Conservatory Hall as a box within a box, with a heavy outer shell to isolate against exterior sound, and with a light, reverberant inner layer to shape the sound within.

Inside the space, technical issues were solved with relatively economical means. Soundproof windows are formed by pairing two standard curtain-wall systems around a generous air space; mahogany surrounds give the assembly a polished finish. A wooden lattice that wraps the upper half of the room conceals inexpensive acoustic panels and curtain tracks, and playfully incorporates glowing glass blocks. Steel rods stretched over heavy timber beams support the ceiling. Recalling taut violin strings, they give a muscular presence to the volume. As with its sibling space, the ceiling suggested by this structure is deceptively low: a black scrim hides the true acoustic ceiling, 1.5 metres above.

Other areas are similarly detailed with a quiet elegance that sets the tone for the larger project. The 1996-renovated Mazzoleni Hall, the facility’s third performance space, boasts a wooden screen that echoes textures in the newer spaces, and a raked floor that holds the room together as a single, clean-lined volume. The acoustics of 43 new practice studios are precision-engineered so that sound doesn’t travel between adjacent rooms, but is allowed to leak out into the hallway, filling this interstitial space with faint melodies. A section of heritage roof thrusts into a fourth-floor elevator vestibule in the new studio wing, giving an unexpected close-up of grey slate shingles, a wood-framed dormer window, and the red brick cornice. Even fire hose cabinets have custom covers in either steel or painted wood, blending into adjacent walls.

The project’s most successful spaces–including the multi-layered atrium and compact Koerner Hall–emerged from the challenges posed by a tight site. Such was also the case with a VIP room, located within the third-floor theatre lobby when no space could be found elsewhere on the floorplates. The room–like the lobby floor it sits on–is suspended from the roof structure, allowing for floor-to-ceiling glass walls with an uninterrupted view of the Toronto skyline (appropriate to its support system, the room is dedicated to a Dr. Hun Shiu Hung). An exclusive venue for private dinners and mid-performance receptions at night, it’s often rented for special events during the day such as a recent Sotheby’s board meeting.

By encompassing a wide span of programmatic possibilities within generous open spaces, the Telus Centre has transformed the Conservatory from a stuffy, no-image institution in a 19th-century shell to a leading and visible 21st-century hub for the arts. “It’s completely elevated our profile not only in Canada, but in the world,” affirms Conservatory president Dr. Peter Simon, who estimates that the light-filled atrium and lobbies, acoustically magnificent concert halls, and expanded teaching studios currently welcome as many as 10,000 people each week. “It’s just an extraordinary building. And it’s something that will last for another 100 years.” CA

Elsa Lam is a PhD candidate in the Architectural History and Theory program at Columbia University. She currently holds a Junior Fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC, where she is pursuing research on the Canadian Pacific Railway’s role in shaping Western Canadian landscapes at the turn of the 20th century.


Client Royal Conservatory Of Music
Architect Team Marianne Mckenna (Partner), Robert Sims (Associate In Charge), Dave Smythe (Project Architect), Meika Mccunn (Project Architect), Carolyn Lee, Frances Lago, John Mestito, Gary Yen, Dan Benson, Krista Clark, Bill Colaco, George Friedman, Erik Jensen, David Jesson, Robin Ramcharan, Rita Kiriakis, Lexi Kolt-Wagner, Scott Pomeroy, Mark Simpson, Deborah Wang, Chris Wegner, Norm Li, Clare Radford, Nick Lim
Acoustician Sound Space Design With Aercoustics Engineering Ltd
Theatre Consultant Anne Minors Performance Consultants
Structural Halcrow Yolles
Mechanical Merber Corporation Consulting Engineers
Electrical Crossey Engineering
Landscape Janet Rosenberg & Associates
Interiors Kpmb Architects
Contractor Pcl Constructors Canada
Costing Curran Mccabe Ravindran Ross
Audiovisual Engineering Harmonics
Architectural Lighting Martin Conboy Lighting Design
Heritage Goldsmith Borgal & Company Limited Architects
Area 190,000 ft2
Budget $110 M
Completion September 2009