The Isabel by Snhetta and N45 opens at Queen’s University

The Isabel is world-renowned Snøhetta’s first Canadian project, designed in partnership with Ottawa firm N45. The mandate was to design a new arts centre for Queen’s University. In addition to a performance hall, the building needed to accommodate the very different needs of theatre, music, and film and media students. The building had to be designed to fit within a compact piece of land  around substantial historic structures while featuring fantastic lakeside views.

With origins in Oslo, Norway, Snøhetta is well known for designing a number of significant buildings worldwide, among them the Library at Alexandria in Egypt as well as impressive performance halls in Oslo and Busan, South Korea. the Isabel is Snøhetta’s first-ever Canadian commission.

The firms’ winning design located the bulk of the new building within the courtyard created by the historic brewery and stable – and then incorporated them directly into the new facility. Repurposing the former brewery meant removing the existing pine, hemlock and spruce floors, which was later re-milled and used to finish the interior of the building’s lobby.

If the Isabel can be said to have a heart, it is the 566-seat performance hall. Virtually a building within a building, no part of the hall touches the rest of the structure directly and its two-foot-thick walls so effectively muffles sound that even if someone outside the hall were pounding on the floor with a hammer, the audience inside wouldn’t hear it.

The room’s shape and form was driven by the international theatre design firm, Theatre Projects Consultants, who work worked closely with Snøhetta to design an intimate and dynamic performance space that wraps the audience around the room (this is their sixth collaboration with Snøhetta including the Oslo Opera House). Theatre Projects seamlessly and discreetly integrated the lighting and rigging systems to maintain Snøhetta’s clean, modern design for the performance hall. In the Isabel’s 100-seat flexible theatre, Theatre Projects created a versatile space that can be rearranged into various stage configurations providing countless creative options.

The acoustics were designed by New York-based Arup using their Virtual SoundLab technology, which allows the environment of a space to be listened to before it is even built. Retractable motorized acoustic drapes (designed by Theatre Projects to Arup’s requirements) allow the performance hall sound to be customized even further. For several years now, Arup’s team has collaborated with the architects at Snøhetta to create the pristine acoustics of the Isabel’s performance hall as well as the Principal Emerita Karen Hitchcock Rehearsal Hall, which exactly replicates the main venue’s acoustics.

When Robert Matthews – the lead architect from N45 – first saw the site, he recalls being stunned by the view – the white-capped lake, with all its “presence and power.” Thanks to its large expanses of glass, the Isabel’s design draws the lake into the building while its sinuous steel roof echoes the glistening waters. Together they tie what Matthews justly calls “one of the great concert halls in eastern Canada” to its waterside environment.

The total cost of the Isabel project is $72 million, and has been funded by several major contributions. The Bader family has donated $31 million; the Government of Canada has given $15 million through the Major Infrastructure Component of the 2007 Building Canada Fund; the Government of Ontario has issued $15 million; the City of Kingston has contributed $6 million; and lastly, Queen’s University has given $5 million.

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