Friday's unveiling of the dazzling Koerner Hall completes an epic redesign, some 20 years in the making, of Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music. Sumptuous and daring, the hall presents another architectural triumph in wood - the first belongs to the Frank Gehry-redesigned Art Gallery of Ontario - while lending further credibility to the argument that Toronto is not only a city of pluralism but also one of cultural depth and intrigue.
Music can stir the mind - something RCM director Peter Simon has promoted and programmed since becoming the conservatory's leader in 1991. To that end, within a human-scaled concert hall, Koerner will showcase classical, jazz, pop and world music. Along with the unveiling of the hall, a curtain has been lifted, too, on Marianne McKenna, a founding partner of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, who has delivered the largest, most significant cultural institution ever attempted in Canada by a woman.
Given the dearth of women who endure in architecture, McKenna's accomplishment is huge: The Royal Conservatory is a work of architecture that expresses a rare exuberance for reinventing historic buildings through new, contemporary minimalism.
Velvet sounds, city views
The hall is a passionate space. Even before bows are set to strings, the architecture anticipates the emotion that can be pulled out of an audience. What is essentially a classically shaped shoebox hall has been given a new lease on life through the lush use of curved oak on the balcony fronts and for a massive solid-wood canopy that serves as a reflector of sound over the stage.
How to disperse the sound waves to the audience in a lyrical way? McKenna has found the answer in what will become a signature moment of design: Twisting, undulating ribbons of wood that seem to swim according to their own hard-driving rhythm have been suspended below the 65-foot-high ceiling. Looking up, a visitor sees the ribbons speed along the ceiling like a school of fish. Apertures for lights and rigging points are placed within the split of the wooden ribbons. There's plenty here that draws from the female form.
Above all, McKenna has expressed something organic and alive that has become part of the greater whole. "I wanted an acoustical veil to be something other than a lunar landing," she says, standing in KPMB's boardroom, where the design team has assembled more than a dozen small, wooden weavings that helped to produce the final solution of the twisting ribbons. Bob Essert, the acoustician who pulled off the impeccable sound at the city's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, worked closely with McKenna on this one - and the sound is stunning: urgent, velvet, intimate.
Don't go to Koerner expecting an elegantly neutral space, which is what was delivered, with considerable grace, down the road at the Four Seasons. With its 1,140 seats (roughly half as many as the opera house), expect something more intimate: a cultural complex - officially called the Telus Centre for Performance and Learning - that communicates from all sides, not just as an architectural one-liner strutting its stuff on main street. The design exudes both intelligence and practicality by McKenna and her team, including architects Bob Sims (long-time devotee of the project, and associate in charge), Dave Smythe (project architect), Meika McCunn (project architect) and Carolyn Lee, who was critical to the selection of the material palette.
The floor plan is not only legible; it offers an exhilarating progression from the box-office entrance on Bloor Street, up a sweep of stairs to an atrium that connects to Koerner Hall and student life below, where a café is located next to display cases of instruments, and, beyond, naturally lit practice studios.
During intermission, the lobbies are generous enough to handle a crowd, and the long marble bar means shorter lineups, allowing time to wander to the walls of glass to look out to the Royal Ontario Museum, its sharp angles softened at night, or to the towering oaks of Philosopher's Walk. Outside, on a deck of ipe wood, a visitor's eye drifts further south to the CN Tower.
Reaching out, pulling in
What used to be a place of historic charm with dowdy practice rooms and creaky floorboards has become a composition of light and dark. The historically designated McMaster Hall (1881) with its robust masonry walls and high Victorian peaks and valleys is heavy-handed and self-important; but, contrasted with McKenna's new minimalism of white oak, clear glass and occasional bits of bronze, a fascinating dialogue has been established.
More than two decades in the making, McKenna's concept for the Telus Centre is, in many ways, built around a series of viewing platforms. Look up from the new main lobby off Bloor to the ceremonial French-limestone stairs. Look across the soaring atrium defined by a ceiling of light. Look to the north, a wall of historic brick; and, to the south, a wall of Turkish black stone.
Another pleasure of the RCM is that it expresses a multidimensional architecture. From the north, there's a robust double entrance - one belonging to the original McMaster building, the other to the new black, wheelchair-accessible cube that floats on a base of glass. From the west, it is a big, brick elevation that rises up over the stands of Varsity Stadium. And, from the east, the conservatory stretches longingly, gracefully toward Philosopher's Walk, inviting passersby to wander up its finely detailed entrance, with stone benches and a plaza cut from local, Wiarton limestone - past the student practice rooms set into the building's lower, grassy bank - and into the heart of the facility.
Reaching out and enticing strangers into new pleasures is where city building becomes compelling, and, for this alone, the RCM operates as a piece of urban poetry: not to be consumed in a single drive-by, but revealed in unexpected ways over time.
A SuperBuild to celebrate
The unveiling of Koerner Hall marks the final chapter in the massive program of cultural SuperBuild projects in Toronto. Launched in 2000, the Ontario SuperBuild program provided significant kick-start funds that allowed for a major redesign of the Royal Ontario Museum by Studio Daniel Libeskind; the Four Seasons facility for the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet by Diamond + Schmitt Architects; the reinvention of the Art Gallery of Ontario by Gehry + Partners; a new home base for Canada's National Ballet School by Goldsmith Borgal & Co. with Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg; and two other projects by KPMB: an addition to the George R. Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art and an updating of Roy Thomson Hall.
Once upon a time, Peter Simon wagered that a conservatory of music deserved to be celebrated not only by its students but by the public. A budget was set in 2007 at $85-million. By now, that number has grown to $110-million. Approximately $40-million is still being raised. That's a daunting amount. But the new conservatory is a work of design intelligence and devotion to music unfolded over a long time. That's the kind of meditative gamble that will sit well among Torontonians for many decades to come.
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