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The Young Centre for the Performing Arts is the vital spark that every city desires. Days before its official opening in Toronto's Distillery Historic District, with furniture heaped in the main lobby, the place is alive with actors rushing into rehearsals for the Soulpepper Theatre Company's opening show and theatre students from George Brown College loudly practising their lines. In this world, the power of the spoken word is revered by the actors and honoured simply and honestly by the architects.

Toronto's reputation has been surely damaged by increasing homicides. And yet. There's a steady production line of stellar new architecture being trotted out in this city for academic institutions and the arts. Though the urban fringes of Toronto are starved for exhilarating architecture, there's an embarrassment of riches in the downtown.

The Young Centre is an amalgam of two late-19th-century tank houses belonging to the original Gooderham & Worts, a Victorian manufacturer of whisky transformed into a cultural village and called the Distillery Historic District when it opened in 2003.

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Next to Cherry Street in Toronto's east end, along chain link fencing, there is a zone of texture and difference. The Young Centre is announced by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects by a long steel canopy with an underside of timber, lit from lights set into a laneway of cobblestone.

At times, the Young Centre is a dead ringer for KPMB's past work -- the large wooden window at the front entrance, the use of an expressive canopy and the Tom Payne signature tower seen in the past at University of Toronto's Woodsworth College and the pre-Gehry iteration of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The brilliance has to do with creating inspired public space by borrowing the spaces in-between. Laid out with military regularity and precision, the tank houses were separated to provide fire protection -- the liquors and wooden barrels were all highly combustible. Heavy wooden shutters, painted a bright green throughout the complex, could be closed in case of fire.

Within the space between Tank House 10 and Tank House 9, the architects determined that a generous lobby could be created. A muscular timber roof has been floated several metres above the rooflines of the neighbouring tank houses and allowed to extend beyond their front elevations. The horizontal gesture has enough meat on it to announce the presence of the theatre in the Distillery District without suggesting the glitz and kitsch usually associated with something lesser or other -- musical theatre, for instance.

At the front of the lobby, visible from the laneway, is a genteel fireplace. Although it might be pleasant in your home or cottage, this hearth is too prim and nicely contained in a place where, in the centre's main theatre, the witches of Macbeth might some day be building a fire that burns and a cauldron that bubbles with a brew of bat wool and tongue of dog.

Generous clerestory windows bring plenty of natural light to the main lobby, and offices for both the Young Centre and George Brown's theatre school have been created on a mezzanine floor with views into the central hall.

The loveliness of the original textures remain intact, including the timber roofs in white pine and the skewed brick dentils that line the upper edge of the exterior walls -- a rare design conceit.

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KPMB principal Tom Payne and senior associate Chris Couse, who have worked together for two decades, designed the Young Centre -- with project architect Jaffar Mark.

Payne and Couse have produced the Portland Center for the Performing Arts in Portland, Ore., (1987) when they worked for Barton Myers Associates, and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago (2001). They currently are designing the Arthur Miller Theatre at the Walgreen Drama Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Like the Young Centre, all three of these theatres spin on a common design intelligence: new courtyard space gained by covering the space between existing buildings.

The Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre is the main attraction at the $14-million Young Centre. Cast with the serious, dark tones of the Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre -- a space that KPMB recently renovated -- it offers an intimate space with a flexible stage, seating for 400 and white-oak finishes. About 60 per cent of the performances at the Young Centre will be provided by outside theatre and dance troupes -- those revenues will make a vital contribution to the centre's viability.

There are several performance venues, hardly extravagant spaces but workable, efficient containers for any troupe serious about reaching their audience. The total project budget was tight -- about $200 per square foot -- which meant making the most of existing brick and enclosing space with additional cement block walls. Sprung floors have been included in a couple of classrooms, allowing them to double as studios for dance performances.

The historic wooden windows have been preserved, although a larger shutter was added for when blackout conditions are required. Such is the nature of the surgical interventions by KPMB -- nothing that trespasses into luxury or excess but enough to create a unified whole from disparate programs and timelines.

"The gritty authenticity of the space has been maintained," Couse says. "And a gritty budget," Payne adds.

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Architecture can hardly be expected to dictate what happens within its walls -- that responsibility is left to Albert Schultz, artistic director of Soulpepper, and James Simon, artistic director of George Brown Theatre School. The two started working on the idea of a collaborative space five years ago, prompted into action by Paul Carder, then the dean of George Brown.

The theatre school is a three-year program that offers a conservatory of acting, and some of its graduates go on to work with the Shaw Festival or on stage at Stratford. The school had been unceremoniously dumped into the basement of the dentistry school at the college's Casa Loma campus in Toronto. Students would sit on the floor to eat and work in classrooms without any windows. Now, they say, gathered around the fire, the new centre has inspired them to think better of themselves.

Along the north edge of the Distillery Historic District, on Mill Street, the tank houses present a mask of masonry, aloof and impenetrable from the street. Besides the massive timber roof that floats above, ribbons of glass suggest new beginnings -- a hint of a cabaret space can be seen from the street, and, further along, an actor's lounge. What lies within is now worth investigating.

Contemporary architecture has come to rest at the Distillery District. It's no longer enough to go there to visit artist studios and order hot chocolate laced with chili and ginger. The dog shows are gone. What matters now at the Distillery District is the merging of old and new world architecture. The Monte Clark Gallery, designed by Ian Davidson of Vancouver, juxtaposes stark, white spaces against found, rusty equipment freeze-framed like endangered species. The Sandra Ainsley Gallery sets its glorious glass art against mouldering walls.

The Corkin Shopland Gallery, designed by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, is a 550-square-metre space originally used for the storage of spirits -- the gallery's main hall was excavated four feet to provide magnificent height. There's an invented topography within this gallery: grade changes, stairs to climb, a grotto formed by several brick archways, a steel bridge. In most galleries, art is viewed. At the Corkin Shopland, it's possible to travel into the minds of the artists.

Walk into the Young Centre and witness a place alive with creative promise, where actors such as Nancy Palk are travelling through the centre with directors Diana LeBlanc and Joseph Ziegler. Albert Schultz is everywhere. For the 70 students from George Brown's theatre school, learning can happen by simply sitting in the lobby's café and observing those making the exits and entrances.

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"What's exciting is that Soulpepper and George Brown will be having their asses kicked by the hot young dancers and choreographers who come here to perform," Schultz says.

The timing of the new centre is crucial. In the last few months, Toronto's 105-seat Tim Sims Playhouse has closed, as well as the 140-seat Poor Alex. Artword -- home to 150-seat and 60-seat theatres on Portland Street -- has been shuttered to make way for a condominium development. With the Young Centre, the strength of Toronto's theatre has surged ahead, in a place where creative collisions are, happily, commonplace.

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