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An undated handout photo of Arts Commons. The centre has announced its design team for a $450-million project that will add a 173,000-square-foot expansion that includes a 1,200-seat theatre.Handout

Calgary’s Arts Commons has chosen its architects for a major renovation.

The centre announced its design team Wednesday for Arts Commons Transformation, a $450-million project that will add a 173,000-square-foot expansion that includes a 1,200-seat theatre.

The designers will be led by Marianne McKenna of KPMB Architects; Wanda Dalla Costa of Tawaw Architecture Collective; Calgary’s Hindle Architects; and the Danish landscape architects SLA.

The team is a “highly integrated effort,” Ms. McKenna said in an interview last month. “It will be highly collaborative, informed by local knowledge and with an Indigenous lens.”

Ms. Dalla Costa, a member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation who studied at the University of Calgary, is one of North America’s most prominent Indigenous architects. At the media event Wednesday she spoke about bringing a “placekeeping” lens to the work, and ensuring that the new building – and associated work on the surrounding landscape at Olympic Plaza – “will be connected to nature and deeply rooted in this place.”

Arts Commons, which opened in 1985, fills an entire block along Stephen Avenue in downtown Calgary. It includes five theatres and the Jack Singer Concert Hall, and is home to six resident companies, including Theatre Calgary, Alberta Theatre Projects and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. The ACT project has two phases. The first is the expansion, across the street, which will add new venues and support space. A renovation of the existing building is planned as a second phase, for which the organization has not yet secured funding.

The project is important to the city at large. Calgary’s government is working to bring people and economic activity back into its core, which has lost thousands of jobs since the province’s energy sector stalled in 2014.

ACT is “one of the major catalyst projects within the Greater Downtown Plan, and a symbol of Calgary’s commitment to the arts,” Mayor Jyoti Gondek said Wednesday. It is “a world-class facility that is right for Calgary, at a time when we need it the most.” In April, city council approved $80-million for the project.

“There’s a strong push to revitalize our downtown,” said Kate Thompson, president and chief executive officer of Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, the city’s downtown development agency, in an interview prior to the announcement. “We see this and the adjacent Olympic Plaza as an opportunity to pull Calgarians together for the next decade and beyond.”

Arts Commons sees the new project as a means of engaging a larger set of Calgarians and providing space for everyday gatherings and informal performances, CEO Alex Sarian said in an interview. “It’s about the venues,” he explained, “but also inviting everyone inside these buildings, so everyone can see what we see, and enjoy it in an accessible and democratic way.” Arts Commons aims to accommodate a larger set of touring productions, more community events, and provide more capacity for the resident theatre companies to occupy larger and smaller venues for particular productions.

“We’re interested in breaking down the barriers to inclusivity,” said Ms. McKenna, who has extensive experience in performing arts projects in the United States and Canada, most recently the renovation of Toronto’s Massey Hall. “How do we create a building that feels inclusive and becomes a destination in the city?”

This could mean opening up some of the complex’s lobby and amenity spaces to people without a ticket, she said – something that could have a big impact on the current building, “which is rather like a Rubik’s Cube, with miles of corridors,” she added.

As a precedent, she cited the sequence of lobbies at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where lounges and a café occupy the interstitial spaces between performance and education buildings.

The designers began initial work on the ACT project three months ago. They plan to have an initial design complete in fall of 2022. Mr. Sarian expressed excitement about a “deeply qualified” design team, and emphasized the importance of linking the arts into the life of the city. “As part of downtown’s recovery, people are saying, how do we create the environment in which people want to live? And it’s very exciting that the arts are now seen as a force that will help the city turn a new corner.”

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