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The Stratford Festival’s new building, designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects, is a rare case in which a Canadian institution demanded excellent design and actually followed through

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The vertical bronze elements of the glass walls were sourced from Windsor, Ont.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

The new Tom Patterson Theatre is a place for artists to conjure up other worlds. But the art begins on the outside. The building signals high creative ambitions with panels of lustrous bronze, slabs of limestone as smooth as cappuccino foam, and curving window walls that reach out toward Lake Victoria like eddies of a stream.

Designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects, this facility for the Stratford Festival is a remarkable piece of design, joining technically advanced facilities with some of the most beautifully detailed and well-sited public rooms in the country. It is a rare case in which a Canadian institution demanded excellent design, paid for it, and actually followed through.

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Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino, left, and Siamak Hariri of Hariri Pontarini Architects, which won an international competition to design the building.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

The theatre was ready to open when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And while the building stands empty for now, it remains the showpiece it was built to be. “This place had to have enough magic to hold you for the day,” said its lead architect, Siamak Hariri, during a recent tour of the building. “Of course, we had to create a great theatre space. But also to help people engage with the river, engage with the landscape and create a sense of delight.”

From a bird’s-eye view, the $63-million, 77,000-square-foot building is quite straightforward. A solid, horseshoe-shaped volume contains the theatre and a rehearsal hall, all wrapped in pale brick. Curling around it are a set of lobby and lounge spaces, wrapped by an undulating ribbon of glass and bronze.

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The building's curving walls of windows extend out toward Lake Victoria.Ann Baggley/Stratford Festival

Hariri’s team won an international design competition, and the festival clearly chose well. Hariri works largely on institutional buildings and houses for the super-rich; he manipulates metal, stone, wood and budgets with consummate skill. The bronze vertical elements that define the exterior window walls? Made by the Riverside Glass in Windsor, Ont., a previous Hariri collaborator, for an affordable price. The architect has taken a moderate budget and made it feel like a hundred million bucks.

The details are magical, as promised. You enter at the top of the horseshoe, passing a wall of Ontario limestone cut in two textures, rough and honed. On the ceiling, hickory slats conceal mechanical apparatus; your feet touch down on pale oak floors. To the left, the window wall curves in to cradle a century-old maple, its leaves blazing orange and red and sending dappled light onto the inner walls.

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The building's mechanical infrastructure is hidden behind hickory ceiling slats.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

From the front doors, you can also peek through a window into the 600-seat theatre itself. This space, shaped like an oval, is modelled after an older room: the previous venue of the same name, a midsize theatre that was the festival’s third largest.

That old Tom Patterson was beloved but notoriously creaky, constructed within a repurposed curling rink in the 1960s. It provided an elongated thrust stage, with audience members seated on three sides of the action. And its moderate size made it a natural home for the “aficionados,” as Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino puts it, referring to the festival members who come for two weeks and want to see Pericles as well as Hamlet.

The new Tom Patterson reproduces its proportions and acoustics, under a ceiling of black-stained bent wood slats, but it adds physical accessibility on two levels, and state-of-the-art technical facilities. (The LED house lighting can be dimmed by computer to fade gradually to a fiery orange, just like the old incandescents.)

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Cimolino takes to the stage and demonstrates how the theatre space's layout creates intimacy with the audience.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

This was where Cimolino, who also joined me on my tour, couldn’t contain his excitement: He bounded onto the stage and delivered a five-minute monologue on the qualities of the space and how the tight proportions of the room create intimate connections. “From up here," he said, "I look at someone in the audience – even in the back row – and they can see the whites of my eyes.” As an actor, “there’s no room for faking it. You’ve got to just breathe and stand your ground, knowing that you’re completely surrounded.”

But this arrangement is atypical. Was it really a good idea to rebuild the oddball space of the old TPT rather than a more conventional arrangement? Cimolino had two answers. One, the space is flexible, with movable stairs and balcony, so it supports a range of configurations, including a full theatre-in-the-round. And two, you can’t be everything to everyone. There are many multipurpose performance spaces, he said, and “they are not creatively compelling. I think you have to have a take. The place has to have a sense of personality, and the artists can take it from there.”

Cimolino emphasized that the building’s other spaces are equally important. There is a members' lounge, a reward for those “aficionados”; a secondary performance space, dubbed the Forum, that can be set up for cabaret-style performance or panel discussions; and a room for educational programs.

Hariri’s team, including Doron Meinhard and Lindsay Hochman, have detailed all this at an extremely high level. (EllisDon constructed it.) Hariri has been studying Belgian interior designers such as Vincent Van Duysen, and you can see that sensibility in the pale, matte surfaces and varied textures.

Making social spaces comfortable, Cimolino said, is a critical task for a performing arts centre in 2020. “We realized that the way that people wanted to attend plays and enjoy plays had changed,” he said. “People want to have a more deep experience – they want to get to meet the actors, they want to understand the material.” This demanded “an experiential component” to the space, “public spaces where you could interact.”

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The sensibility of Belgian interior design can be seen in the pale, matte surfaces and varied textures.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

This is the kind of language – new, experiential, innovative – that drives capital projects, and Stratford is good at such song-and-dance. The organization raised nearly $100-million in total from donors and government for the project and an endowment. (The ungainly, underfunded rejuvenation of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre surely taught a lesson or two.

In a country where many arts facilities are crumbling, is this facility extravagant? I asked Cimolino this question as we walked the underground dressing rooms, where bronze gives way to concrete block. He paused. “In Chekhov’s day, they wouldn’t pay for the heat, so everyone had to rehearse in winter coats,” he said. “We’ve come a ways from that. But there should be some places in a country that provide support for artists so that they can do their best work.” The general attitude of austerity that has limited arts spending since the 1970s “isn’t right,” he said. “It’s not right, and we’re trying to make it better.”

Good for them. But a parallel crisis of austerity has hit the architecture profession in Canada. Particularly for public buildings, design fees are low; architects (and landscape architects) aren’t given the money or the time to achieve refined and original results. In this wealthy country, many of our public buildings are mean.

Here too, Stratford is setting an example. The festival conducted an international design competition led by the University of Waterloo professor Rick Haldenby; Hariri and company beat out 91 other firms including Diller Scofidio + Renfro (who recently redesigned New York’s MOMA) and Tod Williams Billie Tsien (who are working on the Obama library in Chicago). “We were the dark horse,” Hariri said.

After an “exhaustive” process involving Cimolino and Stratford executive director Anita Gaffney, Hariri’s firm won out. And it’s a good thing: Few anywhere on the continent could deliver architecture this refined. Hariri is no high-theory ideologue. He talks frankly about beauty, which architects rarely do, and he can produce it.

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The planting of perennial gardens, originally planned for this spring, was cancelled because of the pandemic.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Even the landscape has been thoroughly designed. Hariri and landscape architect Ron Holbrook designed a set of colourful perennial gardens that will knit the place into the landscape. This spring the final planting was cancelled and the gardeners laid off, as Stratford ran into the devastating reality of the pandemic.

It’s an awkward moment to unveil a shimmering new facility. But Cimolino is looking forward: "This promises to be a source of strength,” he said, "for this festival and this community for decades to come.”

The festival’s artists, when they’re back to work, face many challenges. But the building sets a high bar for creative ambition: It aims for magic, and delivers.

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