The architecture of Canada's National Ballet School is pure poetry. Exultant and luminous, the complex on Jarvis Street in downtown Toronto frames the innocence, the strength and the potential of children. No billboard put up by any jeans manufacturer better captures the power of youth, or the struggle to become an adult.
Toronto architecture is coming on strong now. If there were doubts in the past that the local talent couldn't measure up against the superstars, those fears can officially be put to rest. The NBS is an intense, exhilarating architecture that pushes and pulls intimately against the street. More than a decade in the imagining, lobbying and making, it convinces absolutely of the need to educate through exceptional architecture, an idea befitting not only gifted dancers but all children in Canada. Elevated above the grimy, disorder of one of Toronto's main streets, young ballerinas work at the barre within inches of a monumental glass curtain wall. Training within double-height studios is their privilege now. What the city gets is a gifted new generation printed on its skyline.
On a site measuring about a hectare, there's a strong composition of low, mid-rise and high-rise buildings that are clearly invigorated by each other. Two historic structures have been retained as complete volumes and wondrously integrated into the contemporary facility. Both the public and the private sector have been accommodated in the deal. If Toronto is indeed the open, tolerant city the world considers it to be, this physical plant sets a new precedent for ways architecture can charge a site no matter how big or small the footprint.
Designed by the joint venture of Goldsmith Borgal & Company with Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, the NBS delivers the kind of sustaining, intensive, mix-it-up template the city needs to produce for new communities along the waterfront.
Twelve, light-filled studios are central to the $100-million ballet campus on Jarvis Street. But the NBS believes in a couple of things that other internationally recognized schools have difficulty fostering: One is that a dancer has a brain that needs to be cultivated from an early age; the other is that a healthy body needs wholesome food. At ground level, a "town square" rises three storeys high to gracefully integrate a cafeteria and dining hall, a massive fireplace finished in COR-TEN rusting steel, and lounge seating.
The design of the contemporary pavilions, led by Bruce Kuwabara and project architect Mitchell Hall, shoot up and horizontally across the site. Although accessible from a single, secure entrance, the facility opens on to several courtyards detailed by MBTW landscape architects with wooden privacy screens, paving stones and greenery.
There's an exhilarating choreography between public- and private-sector interests that defines the project. The original Havergal Ladies' College now contains the classrooms and administrative offices for the children, with an art studio located under the rafters on the fourth floor. Northfield House, a place of exquisite plasterwork built in 1856 for Sir Oliver Mowat, a Father of Confederation and the longest-serving Ontario premier, is now set at the centre of the complex as the historic jewel wrapped by the town square.
The public institution presses its talent up against the street, most notably by making its ballerinas visible to passersby. Two condominium towers designed by Peter Clewes of Architects Alliance for Context Development are recessed behind the training centre with a series of crisply detailed yellow-brick townhouses lining Mutual Street, one street west of Jarvis. From a complex series of negotiations came a high degree of clarity. A trilateral deal between the CBC (which occupied the historic buildings for decades), the City of Toronto and Context allowed the school to receive half of the site for one dollar. Context paid $5-million for the entire site but agreed to confine its condo towers and a row of brick townhouses to half the land, receiving greater density in return. The school's pre-existing Betty Oliphant Theatre bookends the project to the north and provides not only a swimming pool for dancers but a theatre accessed seamlessly from within the complex.
The NBS takes on about 180 students training for careers in dance and several hundred more who are enrolled in part-time or adult classes. Within its downtown complex, students are provided with a professional ballet curriculum, with academic classes from Grades 6 through 12. Though it is the highest standard of professional ballet training available in Canada (with many students from the United States, Brazil, or South Korea) the NBS was initially rejected for funding by Ontario's SuperBuild program for not being a major cultural institution. Swift, effective lobbying from the school's artistic director, Mavis Staines, and administrative director Robert Sirman, overturned that decision. Their tenacity has meant an important contribution to the revitalization of the much-maligned Jarvis Street.
Though set on a tight urban footprint, there's a generosity of space devoted to the width of hallways and lounge areas. There's enough space in the L-shaped wing of dance studios to hear nothing at all, where the chaos of the city below is lost and time is slowed down to the pace of dancers lying on the floor to stretch, flex and split apart their bodies for what seems, to an outsider, like an eternity. Within the training centre, there's quiet, except for the sound of a piano.
Wandering through the space at the NBS, it's impossible not to wonder why so little money is invested in the city's public schools. Within the Toronto District School Board, there are 270,000 students being accommodated in tired and damaged facilities, the great majority having been built for the baby boomers some 50 years ago. Though new or retrofitted facilities are desperately required, there's only enough money in the system to keep the places heated and the rain out.
"What message are we sending to kids when the building hasn't been painted for 20 years, when the ceiling tiles have been ripped out?" says Sheila Penny, executive superintendent of facility services for the school board, who estimates that 400 Toronto schools require deep retrofits and another 140 schools are in need of significant upgrades.
"We have buildings that don't have access to natural light and yet we know that kids do so much better when they have access to natural light," she says.
At the NBS, some of the older students walk the halls looking stiff following an average of four hours of physical training every day. Some of them wear sandals rather than force blistered feet into shoes. But how lucky they are to have this facility. During one recent afternoon, Mavis Staines, barefoot, was teaching a class of children perfectly turned out in purple tights. The group was bathed in light from the outside. Students motivated and determined, every one of them. No artificial lights were required.