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The Architectural Review

Catherine Slessor
July 2007 | p.g 36-43

Dance Class: In Toronto the city becomes a backdrop for performance

Toronto has never quite recovered from Peter Ustinov’s description of it as ‘New York run by the Swiss’, but Canada’s version of Manhattan is currently having a moment. Architectural suitors are queuing up to extend their favours, notably Daniel Libeskind, whose Quatermass-style excrescence leers up behind the sober terracotta portals of the Royal Ontario Museum, and the local boy made good Frank Gehry, whose new extension to the Art Gallery of Ontario will mark a petal-strewn return to his home town. English home terrible Will Alsop has also enjoyed running riot with a brash box on stilts for the local art college (AR October 2004). Though the general effect of all this fairydust is to sex up Toronto’s architectural profile, local firms are still capable of showing their mettle. The work of city stalwarts Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (KPMB) might lack the shrill demonstrativeness of imported superstars, but amply makes up for it in thoughtful nuance and sympathetic connection with the urban realm.

A case in point is the new campus for the National Ballet School of Canada (NBS), which skillfully stitches together a series of historically disparate elements into a responsive whole. On the site encompassing a former ladies’ college, an Italianate mansion and the School’s existing theatre, a singular, egocentric object building would have been fatally misconceived. Instead, KPMB tactfully orchestrate an interplay between heritage and new interventions so that the evolving layers of history are clearly legible, but new parts also have an expressive dynamism. In a visual tour de force, dance studios are contained in huge stacked vitrines with dancers perpetually on stage and on show, revealing the life of the building to the city.

On par with the Paris Opera and London’s Royal Ballet School, the NBS is one of the world’s most prestigious and demanding ballet training institutions. Uniquely in North America, it offers an integrated programme of professional dance training and advanced academic level education, the development of body and brain both considered equally important. Competition is intense, with 1000 aspiring dancers chasing 50 full-time places offered each year. Students are drawn from all over Canada and non locals live on site in the School’s residential accommodation. The core curriculum of professional training is augmented by an enthusiastic take up of extensive part-time and recreational programmes.

Involving great physical strength, but also qualities of suppleness and lightness, ballet is all about making difficult things look effortless. KPMB’s architecture of delicate glass boxes has an equally effortless, elegant spirit, but is also grounded in the grinding commercial realities of development. The NBS campus occupies a site on Jarvis Street, a major urban artery running north out of the CBD. Historically Toronto’s address du jour and lined with grand nineteenth-century houses, it had become a slightly seedy, rundown strip, its handsome buildings casually appropriated for other functions. Both Havergal Ladies’ College and Italiante Northfield House (built in 1865 for Sir Oliver Mowat, Ontario’s longest serving premier), were recently occupied by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

A three way deal between the CBC, City of Toronto and a local developer allowed the NBS to acquire half the site for the nominal sum of one dollar. Though in practice the developer owned the whole site, he agreed to confine his activities to the rear portion, constructing a row of townhouses along the west edge and two condominium towers that stand sentinel over the campus. Thus the competing interests of private development and a public institution are satisfied, and a formerly edgy and decrepit inner-city area will benefit from an infusion of culture and aspirational new residents. A future phase will see the redevelopment of the school’s residential block on Maitland Street, to the north-west of the site.

The various new and existing elements define and animate the street edge. At the south end of the site, the ladies’ college is now, appropriately, transformed into the School’s academic wing, linked to the new central block by a glazed gangway. At the north end, the School’s existing theatre closes the circle, buttressing up to the new block. Northgate House is retained as a centerpiece of the ensemble, its meticulously restored rooms now housing the school’s administrative offices. Wrapping this historical relic in a protective embrace, the new dance studios are contained in a six-storey tower, a five-storey bar and a four-storey pavilion. Each element is capped with rooftop courtyards and terraces, providing external breakout spaces for students and staff. When not being put through their paces in the generously proportioned studios, dancers congregate in the triple-height forum at the heart of the building which acts as the School’s informal town square, with a giant hearth, projection screen, dining room, and lounge seating. The honey coloured brick walls of Northfield House anchor the fluid, light-filled space.

Details such as the specially designed barre, sensuous rubber flooring on the staircases (the building is obsessively attuned to the needs of delicate feet) and concrete columns lacquered and polished to resemble marble show a welcome ability to attend to the small things. Carefully choreographed internal views give privileged glimpses of activities, hinting at the rich creative juices flowing around the building. And though the campus does have its own small theatre, here the art of performance has a much wider resonance, honed and crafted against the backdrop of the city in a building which is itself a stage.