Music of the Spheres: Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, Calgary, Alberta
PROJECT Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre
ARCHITECTS Allied Works Architecture with Kasian Architecture (Associate Architect)
TEXT Graham Livesey
PHOTOS Jeremy Bittermann, unless otherwise noted
The new Studio Bell, home to the National Music Centre in Calgary, is an architectural tour-de-force. It’s one of the most spectacular buildings constructed in North America during the last decade. The recipient of a Progressive Architecture Award from Architect Magazine in 2014, it’s the most ambitious and accomplished project to date by Allied Works, who worked with associate architect Kasian to realize the design. And despite its American design pedigree, the project is very worthy of Canada’s newest national institution, one of several outside of Ottawa-Hull.
The overall form of the building combines a gateway with a fortress; it is an urban block that tightly fills its site. A striking feature is the bridging element that straddles the street and is seamlessly integrated into the overall building. Clad in terracotta tile, the exterior is monolithic and relatively mute. The flat surfaces of the façade are a charcoal colour, while the sweeping curved elements are finished in a gold-coloured tile that extends into the interiors.
The hallucinogenic aspects of the design are only revealed when one enters. From the lobby, one looks up through soaring and shimmering shafts of space—reminiscent of deep crevasses in a glacier, or being inside the workings of a brass instrument. The architecture is at its best in the in-between spaces, where clear Alberta light bounces off the golden curvilinear and leaning forms, and complexity is created through layered depth.
Studio Bell marks the culmination of a two-decade long process initiated by a group of Calgary-based business people. Key to its realization was the work of National Music Centre CEO and President Andrew Mosker. The ambitious program of the 16,852-square-metre facility includes housing the collection of the former Cantos Music Museum, a collection of over 2,000 artifacts that includes historic instruments as well as electronica and recording equipment. Noteworthy pieces range from the Rolling Stones’ Mobile Studio to Elton John’s white piano, on which he wrote his first five albums.
An international design competition for a new home for the collection was held in 2009, and Portland-based Allied Works Architecture was selected over finalists Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Saucier + Perrotte, and Studio Pali Fekete. Established in 1994 and directed by Brad Cloepfil, Allied Works is a relatively small firm, but one that has been at the forefront of American architecture after completing the Wieden + Kennedy advertising agency in Portland in 2000. Since then, their portfolio has included the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis (2003), the Seattle Art Museum expansion (2007), the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas (2008), the Museum of Arts and Design in New York (2008) and the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver (2011). Each of these is characterized by taut rectilinearity, meticulous attention to detail, and an accumulating expertise and confidence.
Defining the program for this uncommon institution was one of the first challenges for the architects and clients. The team took cues from projects such as the Cité de la Musique in Paris by Christian de Portzamparc (1995). At one point, they hit upon the idea that the building should have the openness of a music festival. This resulted, for example, in the design of an open performance hall—the Jaimie Hill and Tammy-Lynn Powers Memorial Stage—that overlooks and shares its space with the main lobby, and where a wide range of performers can play.
The musical openness of the central stage extends to the entire building and to its ambitious programming, which includes live performances and artist-in-residence programs. Beyond its remarkable collection, Studio Bell houses several state-of-the-art recording studios, celebration spaces, a public radio station, offices, and the renovated King Edward Hotel. The centre is also home to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame Collection.
Cloepfil drew inspiration from such iconic Alberta landscape features as glaciers, hoodoos and grain elevators. Indeed, the rough-edged site in itself was largely devoid of references, apart from the adjoining CPR railway tracks and the evolving context of Calgary’s burgeoning East Village to the north. One key issue was to incorporate the historic King Edward Hotel, an insalubrious dive that once housed a famous blues club. This involved dismantling the old hotel, and reconstructing it brick by brick.
The curved forms employed by Allied Works for Studio Bell are a departure in the work of the firm, first signaled in its 2010 entry to the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec competition and other un-built work from this period. This shift has been enabled by the firm’s increasing facility with digital design software. Their upcoming project for the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, Ohio, displays an even more radical exploration of curvilinear geometries.
Balancing out its digitally driven production, Allied Works’ design process involves a wide range of early concept drawings and models. These can be understood as touchstones that describe the essential ideas of the project, and help ensure that ideas are not lost during the long design development and construction phases. Cloepfil says that the models provide “a material exploration, a search for evocation and provocation.” He adds, “As objects, they are potent and expressive with content that can be expanded by other disciplines and in multiple media.” An exhibition of the firm’s evocative objects, entitled Case Work, was on display last year at art museums in Denver and Portland.
The concept models for Studio Bell are a clear response to music and acoustics, and initially incorporated sections cut from disused brass instruments. The ineffable relationship between architecture and music in these models recalls Le Corbusier’s interest in “acoustic” forms. In works such as the chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp and in a remarkable series of post-1944 sculptures executed by Joseph Savina, Le Corbusier presented forms that have “acoustic resonance,” according to historian Christopher Pearson. So too, it seems, do the forms of Studio Bell.
In describing the concept, the designers state: “Nine towers form the body of the building; the vessel walls, clad in terracotta, rise in subtle curves that merge, part and intertwine, modeled by light, gravity and acoustics.” An analysis of the detailed study model and final drawings re-veal how the towers transform from rectangular to curvilinear as they rise through the building. A slight skewing of the plan accommodates site geometries but is imperceptible in reality. What appears to be relatively simple and ordered in plan and section results, in actuality, in remarkable and very satisfying architectural complexity.
The mysterious architectural qualities of the building continue to unfold as one rises up double staircases, moves through galleries which also serve as stages, and passes through in-between spaces on short bridges. The ascent culminates in the fantastical Cloud Lounge, which leads to the bridging element that unites the two blocks of the project. Within the entire ensemble, the galleries do get somewhat overwhelmed, and on the west side, the organization of the block is rudimentary—the most disappointing space being a rather underdeveloped rooftop terrace above the King Eddy hotel. The new version of the King Eddy itself feels too clean, but some day it may regain the grungy overlay of the former club. Further, the main entrances to the building are curiously discreet.
But if one needs to search for the entry points, the time is well spent studying the terracotta cladding, which evidences an impressive devotion to detail. The cladding is based on the designers’ envelope for the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. For Studio Bell, Allied Works worked closely with German terracotta façade manufacturer Moeding and Dutch ceramic tile manufacturer Royal Tichelaar Makkum to get the right colours and sheen for the 220,000 tiles that clad the exterior and interior. Each tile is precisely fastened to the build-ing in a rainscreen arrangement, and, intriguingly, there are also several places where the tile partially covers windows. One cannot help but think that Gio Ponti’s under-appreciated tile-clad Denver Art Museum Building (1971), which sits adjacent to Allied Works’ Clyfford Still Museum, is somewhere in the DNA of Studio Bell.
It is a challenge to describe a building that holds within it complex spatial figures that overlap, warp, tilt, and curve, despite the relatively straightforward conceptual premise of the building. And in fact, it must be experienced first hand. But even from afar, Studio Bell is a monumental celebration of Canadian music, presenting an urban form that is strong and elusive, recognizable and unique, the building as an instrument. Ultimately, Studio Bell follows through on a series of bold decisions: to build a national landmark in Calgary, to address a challenging site, to define a new institution, and to let an accomplished architect produce a masterpiece.
Graham Livesey, MRAIC is a professor and associate dean in the Master of Architecture program at the University of Calgary.