MacEwan’s new downtown arts centre: a peek inside

MacEwan University’s Centre for Arts and Culture. Photo by MacEwan University.

By Liz Nicholls

There’s a surprise waiting for Edmonton downtown. It’s in an elegant glinting glass-wrapped box that catches the light on all sides. And it’s tied up with lime green ribbons.

Here’s impossible magic for you: what’s contained inside seems bigger than what’s outside. When you enter, the building unfolds and expands in a mysterious way, a sort of light-up architectural origami. That’s what I discovered last week touring MacEwan University’s striking new $181 million Centre for Arts and Culture, currently in progress on 104th Avenue and set to open in September.

Not that the building — the new home for MacEwan’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Communications and its programs in theatre, visual arts, design, music, and more — is secretive. As befits a place for both fine arts training and performance/exhibition, for students and for public audiences, it opens both inward and outward.

MacEwan University’s Centre for Arts and Culture. Photo by MacEwan University

The design is by the late great Vancouver-based architect Bing Thom — partnering with the Edmonton firm Manasc Isaac — whose stunningly diverse archive of fine arts buildings includes the Arena Theatre in Washington D.C., Hong Kong’s Xiqu Chinese opera house, and the Chan Centre in Vancouver.   

We’re on the fourth floor of five, looking up a little and down a lot in the grand but gracefully airy central atrium. It’s a light-drenched hall, occupying the full height of the 428,000-foot structure and encircled at the very top by a clerestory, a continuous strip of skylight. The space is criss-crossed with an unusual geometry of angled staircases. At either end are angled galleries of “nesting spaces” for students to read scripts, learn their lines, debrief their minds, check their mail.

Central atrium, MacEwan University Centre for Arts and Culture. Photo by MacEwan University

Manasc Isaac’s Shafraaz Kaba, the project architect, explains that the atrium, like the whole building, and not just its performance spaces, “is designed with acoustics in mind.” He imagines art openings, installations, gala events in that atrium. The walls, treated with acoustic plaster, are “gallery white”: “we anticipate all the walls covered with student art.”

In the course of the tour with Kaba and Clark Builders project manager Charles Tolley, we’ll venture from the atrium into three dance studios with blonde wood floors and floor-to-ceiling windows either one or two storeys high. Since the MacEwan theatre specialty is musical theatre, the vigorous art of tap dance gets a studio to call its own, where the floor stands ready to take a relentless pounding from student hoofers.

MacEwan University’s Centre for Arts and Culture: a dance studio. Photo by MacEwan University

We’ll see engineered sound labs, some 20 sound isolation booths, a percussion lab, music practice studios, photography studios with curved white walls, dark rooms, video editing studios, painting studios, two state-of-the-art recording studios in the basement. We’ll wander by classrooms, conference rooms, gallery spaces waiting for the new generation of creators and their mentors.

And on to matters theatrical: we’ll see the spacious woodworking, painting, set-, prop- and costume-building shops and studios where theatre artisans learn their craft, and theatre production careers are launched.

Which brings us to the centrepiece of MacEwan’s new performance spaces: an elegant, slightly curvaceous, galleried 430-seat proscenium theatre, complete with fly tower, a catwalk system on all four sides. Ah yes, and an orchestra pit: MacEwan is well known for its full-bodied musicals.

MacEwan University’s Centre for Arts and Culture: the largest theatre

The seats are divided among the main floor and two single wrap-around balcony tiers of swivelled seats. Under each main floor seat is an air vent. The idea of “displacement ventilation,” as Tolley explains, is to to avoid the noise of forced air.

The acoustics are the work of New York’s Stages, an offshoot of the company that created the rarefied sound landscape of the Winspear Centre. The seats, still under their plastic wraps last week, are designed by the Quebec company Ducharme. Unlike, say, the smaller 300-seat Westbury Theatre in Strathcona, MacEwan’s new proscenium house feels intimate. 

Stage left gives directly on the set assembly shop, an arrangement that saves time and back-breaking labour, with the loading dock nearby.

MacEwan University’s Centre for Arts and Culture. Photo by MacEwan University.

“With a fly system in the large theatre, the possibilities are endless!” says Jim Guedo, the director MacEwan’s head of Theatre Arts. “While we’ve always been able to satisfy the acting needs of Theatre Arts students, the new proscenium theatre will have many more options for the Theatre Production students….” Audiences take note: “something like Guys and Dolls has never actually been done at MacEwan. That’s definitely a possibility!”

The floor was getting its finish last week, so we could only peek at the flexible two-storey black box theatre. It can be reconfigured show to show, with a 150-seat maximum, about double the capacity of the current Theatre Lab, aka Room 1-89, at MacEwan’s Jasper Place stronghold. The Faculty of Arts and Communications moves downtown in the course of the summer.

“We hope to return to a four-show season again, with plays as well,” says Guedo. “Shakespeare in the round, for example, large-cast shows like The Skin of Our Teeth, The Women, The Laramie Project, Love and Information. As well as chamber musicals.” 

MacEwan University’s Centre for Arts and Culture: the recital hall. Photo: MacEwan University

The elegant 220-seat recital hall, lighter in hue than the theatres, is lined with an undulating surface of corrugated wood slats, a millwork challenge that’s a work of art in itself. “The hall takes into account MacEwan’s music specialties in teaching, which run to jazz and rock,” says Kaba. “But it’ll be great for a string quartet too.”

To prevent sound and vibration bleed, the performance spaces are essentially designed as a building within a building.

How accessible the new theatres are to Edmonton theatre companies remains to be seen, of course. It’s a university, so student productions come first. But as for Edmonton theatre-goers, there’s something very inviting, and connected to the world, about the new Centre for Arts and Culture.

That’s the magic of living in a glass house. By day the dance studios, for example, are light-filled. By night, they’re lit from within, and passersby can glimpse jazz dance classes in progress. There’s an art gallery for student and faculty work on the main floor. The restaurant planned for the southwest corner, near one of the two main entrances, will give on the outside world of downtown Edmonton, too. “There’s a street connection,” as Tolley says.

Dinner and a show? That’s what cities are for.

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