Arthur Meighen gardens (1997) at the entrance to Festival Theatre
08 . 30 . 2017

Stratford’s new theatre promises to be a jewel

AUTHOR Alex Bozikovic

The $60-million project will become one of the most important cultural venues in the country, so ‘the tolerance for not getting everything right is very low’

he Stratford Festival began with a tent. Now its artistic director has buildings on the brain. The Stratford, Ont., organization recently unveiled the design for its new Tom Patterson Theatre by Hariri Pontarini Architects, which it hopes to start building this fall.

“I am very conscious of the difference between a play and a building,” Antoni Cimolino says. “A play may or may not be perfect, but it is ephemeral – it becomes a memory, with all its good and bad qualities. A building is not remotely ephemeral. It remains.

“So the tolerance for not getting everything right is very low.”

Cimolino is wise to be careful: The theatre will become one of the most important cultural venues in the country. And the history of the Stratford Festival shows just how profoundly a place – and a building – can shape culture.

The $60-million project will replace the existing Tom Patterson Theatre, a soulful but battered facility in a former curling rink, with a new building along Lakeside Drive. It’s in the centre of the picturesque Southwestern Ontario town, a short walk from the larger Festival Theatre. And the design, according to lead architect Siamak Hariri, will be “a jewel,” with a long façade of glass and bronze defining a series of public spaces as it meanders in and out, gesturing toward the nearby Avon River. If realized – and Hariri is adamant the budget will stretch – it will be both sculptural and hospitable, far from radical but a fine place for a play.

The stakes are high. Architecture has been central to Stratford from the start. “This is a Canadian achievement that changed the face of theatre in the 20th century,” Cimolino argues. “And it was the architecture that did it.”

He’s referring to the Festival Theatre, which opened in 1957. Architect Robert Fairfield had designed a temporary tent to house the festival in its early years, and he designed the permanent building to capture the form and relaxed character of that space. “A building with a roof like a tent,” he later wrote, “with a roof which would have great strength, gaiety and dramatic emphasis at its centre.”

That shaped the very practice of Shakespearean theatre. The 1,800-seat Festival Theatre, with its thrust stage surrounded on three sides by the audience, replicated the configuration of the Elizabethan stage. This in turn became the model for other North American and British theatres of the sixties and seventies. And under Tyrone Guthrie’s direction, it brought about a more naturalistic style of Shakespeare.

At the same time, Fairfield’s building has a profoundly modern air about it. With its zigzagging roof and glassed-in lobby, it is a playful and social place, which speaks to the gardens and park around it.

The trick now is to create a similar energy with the smaller Tom Patterson, which seats about 600 and plays, according to Cimolino, a “crucial” role in the institution’s future. It is versatile and small enough to comfortably house a variety of productions. Stratford’s aim is to replace that interesting but makeshift space with a new hall of similar size and proportions, adding a bit more legroom for patrons, an additional public venue for talks and lectures and better technical and back-of-house facilities.

“We understood that this is as important for Stratford going for the next 50 years as the Festival Theatre was for the first 50 years,” Hariri says. “So we took it very seriously.”

Their plan imagines a new 600-seat theatre behind the riverside lobbies and café, lifted up a few feet to conceal the road. An elaborate garden designed by landscape architecture firm Holbrook & Associates will link the sinuous geometry of the building with the downstream pull of the river.

“It will be beautiful,” Hariri says. “And I’m not afraid to say that.

“This is a place where you make memories, so we needed something that would express that in an obvious way – a place where it is special to take a date or special to take a parent. It lifts the soul.”

Most top architects offer drier and more rationalist explanations for what they do. Hariri is no theorist, but he is deeply engaged with the arts and passionate about how architecture can reach people. (When we sat down this week, he spent much of the time talking about the gardens on the site – not exactly self-promotion.) This perhaps is why Cimolino refers to him as “an artist.”

I wrote last year about his design for the Baha’i Temple of South America in Santiago. There and elsewhere, his work emphasizes careful detailing and rich natural materials, often employing walnut and warm Algonquin limestone. His buildings exemplify a branch of Canadian architecture you might call “haute-craft.”

 In a sense, he is a natural choice for a major cultural project in Ontario. He has been tapped by the Art Gallery of Ontario to design its education centre and, more recently, by the Royal Ontario Museum for an important reconstruction.

But what’s heartening about the Stratford project is that the organization understood the importance of architecture and considered radically different approaches. It launched an international competition, inviting more than 50 firms from Canada, the United States, Europe and Japan to participate, and asked 16 to produce full proposals.

Among the final four were Hariri Pontarini and New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The latter are excellent architects, as their new Broad museum in Los Angeles proves, but their work is more conceptual than pretty. They trade more in prickly metaphors than smooth stone.

So how do you wind up with such a mixed group? Clearly Stratford kept an open mind. Cimolino and festival staff had a series of conversations with potential architects, discussing the technical and artistic aspects of the project at length. “I realized this was a tough brief,” Cimolino says, using the jargon for the wish list of a building project. “This sits in a garden. And it needs to manifest its insides, but do it in a welcoming way.

“And we saw some very different design approaches.”

After this “extensive process,” Cimolino says, in the end they settled on a jewel – but a jewel that will try to remain a bit rough. Hariri’s design for the new hall employs pale wood and lime-washed brick. The materials are very calming. And yet, the scale of the room and the arc of its ceiling, Hariri explains, will evoke its curling-rink predecessor.

In the early days of the festival, Cimolino argues, “those things that at first seemed to be a colossal inconvenience” – the tent, the thrust stage, a new building – are what made the Stratford Festival enduring.” There may be a lesson there: Architecture matters – and so do happy accidents.