Looking northwest on the Mezzanine/Mackenzie King Bridge terrace highlighting the projecting terrace levels
Jun.23.2017

The Brutalist Truth about The National Arts Centre

A fortress for culture: This is how the National Arts Centre has seemed to many since it opened half a century ago in the heart of Ottawa. And now, the fortress has been breached.

On Canada Day, the country’s flagship arts complex officially opens the first phase in a $110.5-million renovation. Its ribbed-concrete walls, speckled with grains of Laurentian granite, are joined by new wings of gold-toned aluminum, pale wood and lots of glass.

It’s a new era. The style of expressive concrete architecture known as brutalism was the height of architectural good taste in the 1960s, when a Montreal firm designed the centre; now, it’ll be joined by a sleek addition by Diamond Schmitt Architects – very tasteful for 2017, tightly detailed and hospitable.

The danger is that this new attitude will undercut the very qualities that defined this place: that when the centre lets down its defences, this forceful piece of design will lose some of its magic.

For the centre, says its chief executive officer Peter Herrndorf, the $110-million project is an emblem of a new attitude toward the public. “This was a dark, forbidding, inaccessible place,” Herrndorf says of the complex. “We thought that by making some architectural changes you could make it inviting, transparent, full of natural light – and not-so-subtly shift this organization from exclusive to inclusive.”

“Dark” or “exclusive” is one way to put it. But the architecture was meant to be aloof. The centre was designed as a temple for art, a place apart from the city. The new architecture clearly articulates another goal: “How do you speak to a broader community?” says Donald Schmitt, the partner-in-charge for Diamond Schmitt. The new additions, about 78,000 square feet, “will give people passing on Confederation Boulevard a sense of luminosity, a sense of engagement.”

They’re replacing some of the complex’s outdoor terraces with three wings of heavy timber, wrapped in a glass and perforated aluminum curtain wall. These enclose a new entrance, new lobby space and a rebuilt performance space, while a tower – which borrows the hexagonal geometry – provides a new focus for the complex on Elgin Street. It will be glass, and its façades are embedded with LEDs that allow for signs and video presentations. Instead of ramparts, these walls will be flickering screens.

There will, of course, be free WiFi.

But in 1969, the NAC was the product of wilder ambitions. It was the jewel of more than 800 public building projects to come out of the centennial. It was designed by the Montreal modernists Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Sise, who also designed Montreal’s Place des Arts and the sublime 1964 Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown.

Fred Lebensold led the design of the NAC, and it is quite breathtakingly radical: a three-dimensional concrete landscape, the Canadian Shield in miniature.

The complex, largely windowless, is a cluster of heavy hexagonal masses containing the four theatres; planted terraces climb over and around them. The main entrance is at the lowest point of the site, facing the Rideau Canal. From the plans of the buildings to the detailing of their ceilings, the entire complex has a consistent motif of hexagons and equilateral triangles – remarkably disciplined, even bloody-minded, architecture.

Aloof, expressive and elaborately detailed in concrete: This is textbook brutalism.

That style emerged from the work of Le Corbusier, before becoming the dominant mode in Britain during the welfare-state boom of the 1960s – “self-conscious, self-confident, hugely celebratory high art,” as the British historian Barnabas Calder has put it. In Canada, the dual influences of British-trained architects and European-trained engineers also made it, as I have written, the leading style of 1960s public buildings. If Canada has a national style, this is it.

Schmitt and his team, led by project architect Jennifer Mallard, know precisely what they’re dealing with. (They have already renovated the largest hall, and are working on various internal updates.) “There is an extraordinary building here,” Schmitt says. Their design response is carefully judged. Where the original building’s ceilings were a triangle grid of precast concrete, the new lobby spaces get a triangle grid of lightly washed Douglas fir. The old floors get a counterpoint of polished limestone, in triangular tiles.

But the important moves are to open up the main-street façades. This is entirely defensible.

Back in 1969, the architect Macy Dubois – praising the building as “humane” and “tough” – wrote that these façades “give the centre a cool, closed-off aspect from the city.”

Today, “we’re interested in breaking down that threshold between being intimidated by the institution and being welcomed by it,” Schmitt says.

This is something Schmitt and his colleagues have been thinking hard about: They are also working on a renovation of David Geffen Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center, another formerly introverted 1960s cultural complex.

More than three-quarters of people who visit Lincoln Center don’t even have a ticket for a performance, Schmitt says.

Likewise, according to Herrndorf, the NAC aspires to draw many more people for informal visits.

“You can have a cup of coffee and read a book, you can come with your kid in a stroller,” Herrndorf argues.

“The idea that this place would just be for the people who have tickets was never a great idea.”

The question – and this is going to be relevant for a whole generation of updates to cultural buildings in Canada – is how much you have to cut apart a brutalist building, or impose a new logic upon it, to send a message of welcome.

We should be careful. In 2017, the same imperatives are shaping every type of public building – libraries, civic centres, art galleries – equally. Make it open and informal. Make it bright. Add cafés. What if, 50 years from now, every public building is a glass pavilion with a humming espresso machine and slightly dated modern furniture? What if cloistered, dramatic public spaces are again in vogue?

Then the new wings of the NAC can come right off again, the terraces be restored and the arts can go back in the fortress.

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