FirstOntario Centre Kickstarts Cultural Rebirth of St. Catharines

 
November 16, 2015
It was a packed house this past Saturday as the public got its first look at the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines, a state-of-the-art cultural complex that forms the centrepiece of the city's downtown revitalization. The 95,000-square-foot building, designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects, houses four performance venues under one roof, catering to a wide range of cultural and community events. The FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre (PAC) is part of a larger city initiative that includes the neighbouring Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts at Brock University and the Meridian Centre arena, and represents the final piece of the plan to kickstart the revival of a city that was hit hard by the 2008 economic recession.

An air of excitement and optimism filled the 781-seat Partridge Hall as Steve Solski, Executive Director of the PAC, walked on stage to address the crowd of community members beaming with pride. Following a moving performance by a local First Nations group, a series of speeches heaped thanks and praise on everyone involved for their perseverance and determination to see the project through to the end. Speakers included former MP Rick Dykstra, MPP Jim Bradley, current mayor Walter Sendzik, as well as former mayor Brian McMullan, and leaders from Brock University and FirstOntario. The opening ceremony was punctuated by a performance by Brock University's Department of Music Chair, Karin Di Bella, on the facility's brand new $180,000 Steinway grand piano. After the ceremonial ribbon cutting—in which audience members were each given a pair of scissors to participate in cutting a ribbon pinned to the back of the seats—attendees were treated to a performance by Serena Ryder.

The state-of-the-art complex features four main venues: Partridge Hall, a 781-seat adjustable acoustic concert hall; the 304-seat Cairns Recital Hall; Robertson Theatre, a multi-functional performance/event space for roughly 200 people; and a 199-seat film theatre. Built onto a precipice overlooking the valley of an early Welland Canal route, the building has two main facades that respond to very different conditions. The front facade is composed of yellow brick and runs along St. Paul Street, the main street through downtown, punctuated by a large glass curtain wall showcasing the main lobby space. At the rear of the building, overlooking the valley, a much more dynamic composition hints at the complex program inside, with a series of volumes protruding from the mass and creating a varied elevation.

Gary McCluskie, principal at Diamond Schmitt in charge of the project, explained that the design of the building was very much influenced by the vernacular architecture of St. Catharines' historic downtown. The buildings along St. Paul Street, which runs long the precipice above the river valley, present typical Victorian storefronts to the main road; however, the rear of the buildings are actually constructed on stilts projecting over the edge of the cliff, creating a rather quirky facade overlooking the valley below. This duality was carried through to the design of the Performing Arts Centre, with its refined front facade and eclectic rear facade, which features a cantilevered portion to mimic the local vernacular.

The interior spaces are simple yet elegant. The four venues are staggered on different levels to navigate the dramatic change in grade of the site. Two large lobby spaces, located on the ground floor and third basement level, feature minimalist detailing and large expanses of glass looking out onto the street and the valley.

The grand Partridge Hall, finished with gently curving wooden slats, is made to be adjustable to accommodate various concerts in the venue. Acoustic material can be raised or lowered behind the slats based on the level of soundproofing required. Indeed, the acoustics of the room were remarkable, with Serena Ryder herself exclaiming during her performance: "The sound in here is awesome! I can even hear how good it is on stage."

On the lower level, the Robertson Theatre features retractable seats and provides a large open space ideal for hosting a variety events. Mimicking the main ground floor lobby, a large expanse of glazing looks out over the valley, providing spectacular views both to and from the exterior.

Moving down to the second basement level, the Cairns Recital Theatre features a unique finish of staggered concrete blocks that protrude and recede into the wall to create an uneven surface ideal for acoustics. The use of wood finishes throughout the theatre provides warmth to counteract the concrete.

Diamond Schmitt was fortunate enough to also design the adjacent Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts for Brock University, which was acquired in a separate tender. McCluskie explained that the unique situation of having two different projects side-by-side that are programmatically linked provided a rare opportunity to better integrate the buildings. The design of the two projects informed one another, creating a common aesthetic for the new cultural hub, as well as an integrated public realm. Brock University partnered with the city to make the dream of an arts centre into a reality, and will have access to the Cairns Recital Theatre and the film theatre in the PAC for performances, screenings, and lectures.

While the finishing touches are still being applied to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre (the acoustic testing, McCluskie mentioned, has not even been carried out yet, despite the notable acoustic quality of the opening night performances), the citizens of St. Catharines are rejoicing in the completion of a landmark project that promises a bright future for arts and culture in the city. The full extent of the impact that the new cultural hub will have is yet unknown, but already it has produced a renewed optimism and pride in the former industrial city. With a shiny new performing arts centre, the future is looking bright—and creative—for the city of St. Catharines.

Urban Toronto
by Julian Mirabelli
Images by Julian Mirabelli