Viewpoint (October 01, 2009)

In this issue, we offer a modest homage to Arthur Erickson, an architect who passed away in May and who influenced the careers of generations of architects. Part of Erickson’s legacy is that his love for architecture may not have as much to do with the aesthetics of design as it does with his desire to create a richer world of culture and humanity. Not to undermine the importance of aestheics, but we have an obligation as designers to create architecture that contains a level of authenticity and beauty to inspire the human spirit.

The Royal Conservatory of Music’s Telus Centre for Performance and Learning, which officially opened in Toronto on September 25th, is an example of a recent building that achieves what Erickson sought in his career. During its gala premiere, the 1,139-seat Koerner Hall, the new facility’s showpiece, hosted a roomful of Toronto’s elite for a concert experience that offered an important lesson–demonstrating the importance of architecture as a facilitator for art, culture and the human experience.

Designed by Marianne McKenna, one of the partners at Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, this intimately scaled concert hall and renovated music school took almost 20 years to realize, having initially won a Canadian Architect Award of Excellence in 1991 for its conceptual merits.

Upon entering the classic shoebox-shaped concert hall, one is immediately overcome by the rich fragrance of white oak panelling. The rhythmically expressed undulating oak ceiling–designed to reflect and project sound–literally sets the stage for music. As patrons settled into their seats on opening night, McKenna sat in the first balcony, surrounded by members of her immediate design team, while her partners were seated nearby.

Beginning with the world premiere of R. Murray Schafer’s Spirits of the House followed by Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s piano quintet, pieces by Leonard Bernstein and Gyrgy Ligeti, then gloriously ending with Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, the evening’s program was an impressive demonstration of the diverse talent associated with the Royal Conservatory of Music. Moreover, it demonstrated Koerner Hall’s suitability as a venue for a wide range of musical performances. With each note, patrons, architects and music lovers alike faded into the background as the concert hall did what it was designed to do–allow the music to ultimately shape the space and captivate the audience.

It is during moments like this when we realize the higher aspirations of design. All those years that McKenna continually refined the building’s massing, oversaw innumerable versions of the wooden ceiling, and endured thousands of hours of specifying and modifying the hundreds of details used throughout–culminated in the building’s gala premiere.

Architects aspire to be the artist, the craftsperson and the polemicist, all at the same time. However, perhaps the greatest value that an architect can offer is to elevate the human spirit through built form. Devising an elegant plan, resolving every detail, and ensuring that a design is tactile and beautiful is what we ultimately aspire to achieve, but none of this really matters unless we can inspire beauty in others. Certainly, Royal Conservatory Orchestra conductor Jean-Philippe Tremblay, Austrian-born Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and others knew the true value of Koerner Hall’s architecture during the opening gala. And certainly, Marianne McKenna and her core design team–Bob Sims, Dave Smythe, Meika McCunn and Carolyn Lee–knew this as well.

Maybe this is the kind of experience that Arthur Erickson yearned for in his lifelong pursuit of humanity, truth and beauty. Perhaps it is why he loved to travel so much and why he enjoyed listening to Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. It is through art that we can best appreciate design.

Ian Chodikoff