FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre

Arts facilities play starring role in revitalization

New performance venues designed to reactivate downtown St. Catharines now open
Thursday, January 14, 2016
By Michelle Ervin

St. Catharines has cast the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre to play a starring role in the revitalization of the city’s downtown. The Diamond Schmitt Architects-designed facility, which features four state-of-the-art venues and spans 95,000 square feet, officially opened last fall.

The performing arts centre fronts onto St. Catharines’ main street, but in a sense, says Gary McCluskie, principal at Diamond Schmitt Architects, it has two front doors.

On its north side, the facility features a big picture-box window which pulls in the energy from the main street and projects its own energy back onto the main street. On its south side, the facility responds to the scale of the valley it overlooks, as well as the site of its neighbour, Brock University.

“The architecture really gets bigger and bolder in order to broadcast and have a presence all the way across the canal valley,” as he describes it, “but it also participates as larger buildings that feed together with the Brock buildings to create several set pieces.”

Brock University provided the impetus for the project when it approached the city about partnering to develop an arts cluster downtown. The post-secondary institution had set its sights on repurposing a heritage building, formerly used for manufacturing, for its Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts (another Diamond Schmitt Architects project).

This partnership speaks to the increasing recognition that performing arts centres have fantastic but underused facilities, says McCluskie, whose portfolio also includes Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and St. Petersburg, Russia’s Mariinsky Theatre.

“If your performances are focused on the evening — to a large measure — how else can you be activating the centre?” he asks rhetorically.

A master plan was a must for the city to secure funding through Infrastructure Canada, says Steven Solski, executive director of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. The feds, province and municipality essentially split the cost of the $60-million project three ways, with each contributing $18 million. (A capital campaign also raised corporate and private donations.)

Following the master plan, a feasibility study informed what type of venues the city would build, the executive director says, with the number and size of venues selected based on its goal of booking events every night. The centre uses the nearly 800-seat concert hall and 200-seat black box almost exclusively and shares the 300-seat recital hall and 200-seat cinema (which doubles as a lecture hall) with Brock University.

“Eight hundred seats is perfect for a lot of community uses as well as a good size for the centre’s own programming,” Solski explains.

Partridge Hall, home to the Niagara Symphony Orchestra, is uniquely equipped to host both acoustic and amplified concerts. A key challenge here, notes McCluskie, was to build in flexibility without sacrificing the rich architecture of this type of performance space.

“What we looked for,” he says, “was: Was there a way to maintain this great wood-lined, concert hall feeling but change its acoustic character?”

A critical and novel answer to this was to conceal the additional acoustic material required to absorb sound for pop acts with screens. The use of thick curtains that can be drawn behind solid red oak scallops to tune the hall proved to be not only a visually appealing, but also a practical, solution.

“The architects have done an amazing job from a function standpoint to allow us to do what we need to in that room without a lot of work,” acknowledges Solski.

As a black box, Robertson Theatre is, by definition, a versatile event and performance space. For a traditional look, staff can draw drapes proscenium style and set up telescoping seats for a standard raked theatre layout. For a different look, staff can open up the sweeping window overlooking the valley, which makes the structure appear like a “floating stage” from Highway 406, as Solski puts it.

“I believe that is going to become the workhorse of our venues because of its flexibility, because of its size and the nature of what we can do in the space,” he says.

Already, the black box has hosted everything from band and theatre performances to an awards dinner and a web launch. And today, the performing arts centre is playing its starring role in the revitalization of downtown St. Catharines as cast, with events booked solid through April.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design. Follow her on Twitter @michellervin.

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