Canada's 150 Gets Nifty -- Brutalist Building Revival: The National Arts Centre Reopens in Ottawa

July 5, 2017
All too often, The Architect's Newspaper (AN) reports the demolition of yet another Brutalist structure -- the perpetual bane of the public eye for reasons architects only half-pretend to care about. So it was refreshing to celebrate the reopening of the National Arts Centre (NAC) by Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects. The $110 million overhaul retained the original architectural motifs, while opening it up to the public with large spans of glass and warm wood interiors.

The existing one-million-square-foot NAC by Canadian architect Fred Lebensold was on the public's blacklist from the start. Intended for the Canadian centennial in 1967, it wasn't finished until 1969 and went over its $35.4 million budget by over $10 million. Critics immediately jumped on the excess budget and delayed opening as well as its style -- a reporter for the Toronto Star dubbed it "the Alcatraz on the Rideau."

Beyond matters of taste, there were serious issues with the building. "When it was built in the 1960s, it was assumed that the only way you would go to the [NAC] was by car," architect Donald Schmitt told AN. "So the building wasn't really accessible to pedestrians, and the road down [to the entrance] meant that the building's back faced the city." Inside, natural lighting was limited and the thick concrete walls made Wi-Fi connection difficult, much to the frustration of its modern users.

Thus, in 2011, the NAC hired Diamond Schmitt to renew the building for Canada's sesquicentennial. The first phase was complete in time for Canada Day this past Saturday with the remaining two phases slated for completion by early 2018.

Schmitt's design for the new wing builds out from the original concrete facade fins, which were removed and then spaced out with glass panels, creating an airy effect amidst the weighty frame. A broad, Douglas fir staircase leads the public further into the building and doubles as stadium seating, reminiscent of the stairs Schmitt designed at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. Additionally, the lobby was restructured into six major spaces to accommodate various audiences and programming, the main auditorium was updated and reshaped for better acoustics, and the "Panorama Room" was expanded to look over the Rideau Canal. "We wanted to reveal views that just weren't possible with the old structure," Schmitt said.

In keeping with Lebensold's original geometry, hexagonal prefabricated Douglas Fir panels were installed on the ceiling and Ontario limestone was used for the floors. "We cut [the limestone] on the flat for a curvilinear shape -- a fleury cut -- that creates a unique pattern," added Schmitt.

The only new structure added to the building was a glass tower the NAC dubbed "the lantern," completing a corner of the building that had previously been stymied by an existing hotel. "There was some controversy over whether it was appropriate to build a corner that never existed," Schmitt explained. "But it allowed us to rotate the building and create a new, light-filled entrance that welcomes people in." The Lantern is digitally enabled to screen performances on its facade, a flashy upgrade amidst Elgin Street and Parliament Hill's gothic revival architecture.

With an on-time completion and praise from local officials and media, it seems that the building's latest iteration is already off to a solid start. And for Diamond Schmitt Architects, it is a promising warm-up to its renovation of Ottawa's 1912 Union Station, a heritage site (and architectural dupe to New York's original Penn Station), which is currently under construction and set to reopen and house the Senate in 2018.

The Architect's Newspaper

By Olivia Martin