Five months after the National Arts Centre opened on June 2, 1969, the Ottawa Citizen complained that the delayed centennial project was too elitist. “There is a lingering sense,” read an editorial published Nov. 10, 1969, “that the public is not really welcome at the centre.”
The problem was not just high-brow offerings of ballet and opera for the bejewelled friends of NAC god-father Hamilton Southam. Physically, the building turned its brutalist cement back to the city, facing the Rideau Canal rather than bustling Elgin Street. But a $110-million renovation, which was partially unveiled this summer and will be completed next year, aims to change that, adding 78,000 square feet of new and renovated spaces; as NAC president and CEO Peter Herrndorf said at the July 1 unveiling, it is hoped that the NAC will become “the living room of the city.”
[The official opening of Phase 2, including the renewed Fourth Stage, happens on Oct. 4 — the new spaces will be open to the public sometime thereafter]
Walls of transparent glass are meant to invite passersby inside. You do not need a ticket to use the free Wi-Fi, catch a lecture, or participate in other planned events. And you can do it all in a T-shirt and jeans — leave the jewels at home.
The man behind the NAC’s new populist vision is Donald Schmitt, whose Toronto firm, Diamond Schmitt Architects, has designed performing-arts spaces from Montreal to New York to Moscow. The original NAC, like many of its counterparts around the world, was intimidating and “like a fortress,” says Schmitt. “The public didn’t love this building.” That had to change, he says, so that people would feel welcome even before entering, even if only to hang out. Once inside, visitors might be inclined to purchase a ticket.
“People want to engage with arts and culture in a more informal and direct way,” says Schmitt. “And they want to engage when they want to engage.”
The most distinctive new feature is the Kipnes Lantern, a hexagonal glass structure rising 20 metres from Elgin Street. Inside the Lantern, named after Edmonton philanthropists Dianne and Irving Kipnes, are public areas for relaxing and rental spaces for meetings or performances. Parliament Hill, the Château Laurier, and the old train station form visible backdrops. The outside wall of the Lantern is fitted with digital screens for livestreaming performances at the NAC or elsewhere. (Advertising commercial products will not be allowed.) The box office remains on the canal side of the building, but now it’s more easily accessed by pedestrians entering from Elgin Street. The number of washroom stalls is increasing — women’s from 21 to 80, men’s from 26 to 68, plus four universal washroom spaces.
These positive changes are offset by criticism: some local groups fear they are being squeezed out of the Fourth Stage into new, smaller, and possibly less desirable venues in the NAC. Heather Gibson, head of NAC Presents and community programming, maintains the organization is committed to local programming. “There’s more space here for the community than there ever has been,” she says, adding that the NAC has booked more local artists and groups than ever before for the 2017-18 Fourth Stage season.
The vision — if it’s properly realized, if it succeeds in bringing the masses to Ottawa’s living room — confronts the Citizen’s complaint in 1969.