What is a cultural space meant to be in the 21st century? It’s a question that arts organizations perennially ask themselves while trying to conjure exciting answers. When it comes to replacing an existing venue, the emphasis is often on making the new facility more accessible to the public than its predecessor. Whereas art institutions of the past often felt exclusive, our evolving cultural infrastructure is defined by eliminating barriers, both physical and symbolic. And that also means being inclusive of a more diverse range of artists and genres. In the case of the art gallery, this might necessitate more building stock; in New York, such was the impetus for the Buffalo AKG’s recent expansion, which saw the creation of the Jeffrey E. Gundlach Building by OMA.

Beyond these community-oriented gestures, how should an arts facility behave? What should it look and feel like? Here, the emphasis is on dexterity, especially when it comes to performance halls, which should offer many functions simultaneously and be able to toggle between uses and from interior to exterior events. The soirée that spills out to the lobby, the concert that can be equally enjoyed by outdoor spectators – porousness is the big concept. Another New York institution, The Shed (the saving grace of the much-maligned Hudson Yards development), represents a transformative architecture in this regard: Its puffy, ETFE envelope rolls out on wheels to enclose, and embrace, an outdoor plaza.

A New Vision for Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts

Open to the public, the St Lawrence Centre for the Arts reimagined and expanded ground floor would open on two sides to a park and new plaza.

For TO Live, all of these needs – for better accessibility, transparency, porousness and mutability – were front and centre in launching a competition to reimagine the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. A City of Toronto agency that also oversees the neighbouring Meridian Hall (originally O’Keefe Centre, then Hummingbird Centre Centre for the Performing Arts, and most recently Sony Centre for the Performing Arts) among a portfolio of venues around the city, TO Live hopes to generate the kind of cohesive cultural fabric that would designate this part of downtown Toronto near Union Station into a buzz-worthy arts district. If it’s able to raise the funding for this ambitious project, it predicts a completion date by 2030.

A New Vision for Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts

Outside of the upper floor’s Acoustic Hall, attendees would have skyline views and access to lobby and lounge areas connecting to a roof terrace.

The proposal that won the competition, created by a team led by Hariri Pontarini Architects that includes LMN Architects, the Indigenous-led firms Tawaw Architecture Collective and Smoke Architecture with Danish landscape practice SLA, is called Transparence. It puts forth a vision in brilliant contrast to the inscrutable concrete slab that currently sits at the intersection of Front and Scott Streets: While the SLCA is a beloved place, the building as it is suffers from a visually unremarkable presence that’s dwarfed by the heftier, more assertive Meridian Hall. Hariri Pontarini et al’s design, which retains the existing’s footprint and portions of its original low-slung Brutalist facade, is a breath of fresh air in comparison. Yet, it also feels of a piece with much of Toronto’s contemporary cultural architecture: glass boxes, elegantly stacked. Lovely, yes. Surprising? Not really.

But for the team, it’s about much more than form. “We sought a design that is radically accessible, radically open, so that it brings the city in and also pushes out to the city in a way that makes it highly visible, disarming, and welcoming – an emphatic embrace of openness between spaces of performance and the city,” Siamak Hariri, founding partner of Hariri Pontarini Architects, said in an official press release.

A New Vision for Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts

The Hive provides creative spaces with studios, rehearsal rooms and informal
performance areas.

In this respect, the proposed revision (which also aims for carbon neutrality) is commendable. Its glass facade is inspired by the Wampum belt, a beaded textile that Indigenous Peoples have used to record land treaty agreements and whose texture is expressed architecturally as a series of irregular vertical bands that break up the monotony of the glazing that blankets the building. On the ground level, below a swath of the original concrete facade, the lobby appears as if fully permeable, transparent on all sides. Along Scott Street – partially transformed into a public amenity – it opens up completely, and onto a park/plaza that would be shared between SLCA and Meridian Hall, by way of massive operable doors. This is also where the team has situated the new entrance, with a canopy at the corner at Front and Scott to welcome and draw people in.

A New Vision for Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts

Reorienting the theatre 90 degrees created a strong central spine and connection to the new Scott Street Plaza.

Truly fascinating is what awaits indoors. Once inside the wood-clad, triple-height lobby, visitors take in the layered radial ceiling that beams out from the main theatre, enjoy views up to programmed spaces above, and have access to the triumphant central stair, which the team describes as the “Tree of Life,” as it’s rooted in the community and ground-floor experience.

The two biggest interior gestures are organizational. The proposal rotates the original building’s central axis 90 degrees; the invisible spine running through the two main theatres of the revamped centre lines up with Scott Street’s proposed public park/plaza (making that merging of indoors and out as fluid as can be). It has also stacked those two semicircular performance venues in opposite orientations, one on top of the other.

A New Vision for Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts

The main theatre can be configured to support a wide range of performance

The main stage, a double-height venue with balcony seating that is accessed on the ground and second levels, faces inward. It’s shaped and lined like the inside of a canoe – another rich reference to Indigenous culture that also makes it appear warm and intimate. In the space between this theatre and the facade, the team has tiered an array of creative activities, including studios, rehearsal rooms, and informal performance areas, including one called the Hive. Above the main theatre, the second major performance venue – the acoustic hall – faces Scott Street and the CN Tower beyond.

A New Vision for Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts

A model of the proposal for the new St Lawrence Centre for the Arts, with a public plaza between it and the Meridian Hall, at right.

At a recent town hall event at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, Hariri described how TO Live wanted spaces that could morph, calling for a “flip the switch” functionality that would make the centre as flexible as possible. The main theatre is designed to achieve this. It can go from a 650-seat venue to a 1,000-seat one, with scenarios including arena (in-the-round), runway, banquet, thrust stage and so on. Furthermore, as the architects explain, “While acoustically separated from the lobby most of the time, the theatre’s large doors can be opened to create an emphatic connection between the performance space, lobby and plaza.”

A New Vision for Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts

The model shows how the two semicircular theatres are stacked atop one another. On top of the building, the design team has imagined a sculptural grouping of artists’ studios.

At the same town hall, attended by many who live in the neighbourhood, the question of accessibility was brought up. One attendee, who is blind, asked if TO Live had also considered how people with disabilities would be able to safely make their way to the St. Lawrence Centre from Union Station (the whole area, like much of Toronto, is frequently a site of construction). Clyde Wagner, TO Live’s CEO, made it clear that accessibility was his absolute top priority – and that the agency had even been talking with the City about how construction access below Scott Street could be better streamlined by the new building.

A New Vision for Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts

The St Lawrence Centre for the Arts’s redesign would breathe new life into the district.

It felt as though both the agency and the design team, which together hosted the town hall to collect both support and feedback, were sensitive to the input of those who truly care about the venue and the neighbourhood. With their context-driven approach – which fits into its existing site while elevating it – they’ve presented a vision that could indeed rev up a lacklustre arts hub.

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