Young at Heart

PROJECT YOUNG CENTRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, TORONTO, ONTARIO

ARCHITECT KUWABARA PAYNE MCKENNA BLUMBERG ARCHITECTS

TEXT IAN CHODIKOFF

PHOTOS TOM ARBAN

Since 2003, Toronto’s Distillery District has continued to undergo an ambitious adaptive reuse program breathing new life into a 13-acre 19th-century industrial site formerly used as a film set (see CA, February 2005). Today, the Gooderham & Worts Distillery District has matured into a neighbourhood offering not only expensive caffe lattes and oversized Dale Chihuly glass baubles, but the warm and inviting Young Centre for the Performing Arts, designed by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB). The client group for the Young Centre is comprised of a partnership between the Soulpepper Theatre Company and the George Brown College Theatre School. For George Brown, the facility is in close proximity to their downtown campus located near the St. Lawrence Market. For Soulpepper, the Young Centre gave them a permanent home. For both clients, the 45,000-square-foot facility maximizes their ability to juggle rehearsal, teaching, administrative and performance spaces, theatrical support and workshop facilities, a library, lobby and ticketing functions. Since opening in January 2006, the Young Centre has provided the Distillery District with a successful arts and entertainment destination. With several hundred visitors arriving at the theatre almost daily, adjacent restaurants, bars, galleries and retail establishments have benefited from the increased profile the theatre has contributed to the area.

With a construction budget hovering around $200 a square foot, KPMB partner Thomas Payne is still in disbelief that both he, senior associate Chris Couse and project architect Mark Jaffar were able to achieve such a simple, yet sophisticated project. Payne’s vision for the Young Centre was inspired by the simple elegance of the original brick tankhouse buildings numbered 9 and 10. Payne treated the buildings as found objects, using their existing masonry walls as backdrops to the overall program. Breaking from the traditional performing arts centre that conveys the impression of a polished theatrical experience, the Young Centre resembles a workshop facility–albeit one with an elegantly scaled lobby, a fireplace ringed by seating, and a caf with a generously long bar. Often, day-to-day workings of the facility animate the areas around the lobby with a different sort of drama: Soulpepper’s charismatic founding artistic director Albert Schultz may greet visitors or hold meetings with the theatre company on the stair landing leading to the second level. Alternatively, actors in the makeup and dressing rooms upstairs can choose to watch theatre audiences enjoying a drink in the lobby below.

With limited means, the exterior of the building’s extended, horizontal wood canopy announces the theatre’s presence to passersby. Brick faades are left exposed and the existing cobblestones were relaid to conserve the historic appeal of the site. Interior finishes are utilitarian and limited to concrete floors and painted walls for an economy of means. Existing paint remains on many of the exposed brick walls. Maintaining the original location of the windows, the architects added a second pane of glazing to the interior face of the heritage windows for added insulation. Ceilings are exposed to meet both cost and functional requirements while allowing the complex canopy of lighting systems to be visible throughout the building–in both the theatre spaces as well as the lobby, which can easily be converted into a performance venue if necessary.

Flanked by the existing walls of the tankhouses, the lobby is essentially a “found space” with a new roof overhead. Spanning between the two existing buildings, large Douglas fir timber trusses support a new roof and clerestory while maintaining the visual coherence of the original brick structures. Natural daylight pours in, while artificial daylighting illuminates the trusses above, adding a sculptural effect during evening performances. It is this simple manoeuvre that led Payne to comment that the architectural palette for the building was merely “structure and air.”

There are three distinct theatres within the Young Centre. Located within one of the tankhouses, the largest venue is named the Charles and Marilyn Baillie Theatre: a 400-seat flexible theatre designed to include a multitude of stage configurations (i.e., courtyard, flat-floor and end-stage). The theatre’s original roof was removed to accommodate the necessary lighting and equipment. However, it is the Baillie Theatre’s ability to hold a performance with Toronto’s only thrust stage that is particularly significant. The thrust stage was rediscovered in Canada at the Stratford Festival in 1953–and was considered revolutionary for its ability to place the actors in more direct contact with the audience. Having a thrust stage in Toronto allows directors and actors to train on and develop such an important theatrical device. The other large theatre in the Young Centre is the 220-seat Michael Young Theatre. And finally, there is the 90-seat Roger and Kevin Garland Cabaret space and a 125-seat Tankhouse Theatre. Each theatre has been outfitted with fibre optics to provide broadcast-quality signals for radio and television networks.

Since 1998, the Soulpepper Theatre Company has gained a strong reputation in the Toronto theatre community for staging challenging productions, but until last year, these productions were performed at Harbourfront Centre and were limited to the summer season only. In their first year of moving into the Young Centre, Soulpepper’s ticket sales doubled to almost 72,000. With its first year-round season in operation, Soulpepper’s revenue increased by 38 percent. The success resulting from the architectural design strategy for the Young Centre recently earned KPMB a 2007 Award of Excellence in the 10th annual “Good Design is Good Business” international competition sponsored by BusinessWeek/Architectural Record–one of only four international awards of excellence that were given out.

Housing so many facilities under one roof, the Young Centre has helped contribute to an improved culture of collaboration for both the Soulpepper Theatre Company and George Brown College’s Theatre School by allowing the actors to perform, train and mentor within one facility. Students have the opportunity to learn in classrooms and studios built for their needs, and on stages in theatres with various configurations and seating capacities. Even the ingeniously simple loading dock facility, a screened-off outdoor courtyard area containing secure bike racks are mentioned by performers and students as a safe and friendly design feature that is used both day and night. Demonstrating an architecture firm’s achievement in designing a suitable facility for its clients, the Young Centre provides an invaluable teaching and cultural environment that contributes to an evolving part of the city.

CLIENT GEORGE BROWN COLLEGE AND SOULPEPPER THEATRE COMPANY

ARCHITECT TEAM THOMAS PAYNE, CHRISTOPHER COUSE, MARK JAFFAR, GORAN MILOSEVIC, KEVIN THOMAS, ANNE LOK, ANDREA MACAROUN, THOM SETO, KRISTA CLARK, RAMON JANER, CLEMENTINE CHANG, STEPHEN KOPP, ANDREW SINCLAIR, CAROLYN LEE, VIRGINIA DOS REIS

STRUCTURAL READ JONES CHRISTOFFERSEN LTD.

MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL CROSSEY ENGINEERING LTD.

INTERIORS KUWABARA PAYNE MCKENNA BLUMBERG ARCHITECTS

PROJECT MANAGEMENT PHA PROJECT MANAGEMENT INC.

THEATRE CONSULTANT THEATRE PROJECTS CONSULTANTS

ACOUSTICS AERCOUSTICS ENGINEERING LTD.

HERITAGE CONSULTANT ERA ARCHITECTS INC.

SIGNAGE THE BEGGARSTAFF SISTERS

CONTRACTOR DALTON ENGINEERING

AREA 45,565 FT2

B
UDGET
: $10 M CONSTRUCTION COST; $14 M PROJECT COST

COMPLETION JANUARY 2006

PHOTOGRAPHY TOM ARBAN

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