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Breathtaking view from inside ground level of newly constructed atrium. Photos by Terry Steeves.

The National Arts Centre becomes the living room of the nation’s capital

By Terry Steeves on July 3, 2017

Canada’s true testament to our performing arts, the National Arts Centre (NAC), opened its doors on Canada Day to reveal the completion of Phase I of its $114.9 million Architectural Rejuvenation Project. It is the first large-scaled renovation done of its kind on the building since its original construction in 1969. The NAC became one of the projects spearheaded by the visionary efforts of Gordon Hamilton Southam that Pearson’s government launched to commemorate Canada’s centennial. How fitting, then, to celebrate Canada’s 150th with the newly redesigned and re-imaged NAC that now stands like a glittering jewel at the very heart and hub of Ottawa’s parliamentary, memorial, and downtown core sites.

Prince Charles arrives on the scene to cut the ribbon during NAC's grand opening ceremony.

Prince Charles arrives on the scene to cut the ribbon during NAC’s grand opening ceremony.

None other than Prince Charles cut the ribbon during the grand opening ceremony, which had unfortunately moved to the inside of the building due to the unstable weather conditions. Nonetheless, a massive crowd had gathered around the building’s perimeter to catch a glimpse of the Prince as he emerged from the motorcade. During both his arrival and departure, he reciprocated the warm welcome by walking out to greet the barricaded crowd with smiles and handshakes. After the ceremony, dignitaries were whisked away and the doors then opened to the public to come inside, explore, and enjoy performances, including two shows by the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

The NAC Orchestra performs on Canada Day after the opening ceremony.

The NAC Orchestra performs on Canada Day after the opening ceremony.

Drastic changes to the inside layout and the outside façade of the building are immediately evident, with the most being the accessibility and overall look of the building. Gone is much of the fortress-like, brutalism or bréton brut exterior, which was a modern architectural feature of the 1960’s and 70’s that used unfinished concrete surfaces and minimal window spaces to create an almost monolithic-like structure. Instead, its concrete skin has been given a softer, more transparent treatment, including a gorgeous glass-encased main entrance tower right off of Elgin Street and an atrium addition built onto the north face of what was once outdoor terrace space. Gone will also be the huge banners that hung over the parapets of the building that displayed performances going on inside. Instead, the new multi-storied and multi-sided glass entrance tower, called the Kipnes Lantern, will act as a lighted marquis that will project information about NAC shows, display clips of other arts events happening across Canada, or broadcast special celebratory or holiday messages. At night, it shines like a beacon visible from all sides, lending a little bit of Broadway dazzle to Elgin Street.

The crowd wanders through the ground level of the NAC.

The crowd wanders through the ground level of the NAC.

As for the inside of the NAC, it was a matter of creating a more inviting, accessible, and sensible space that would marry with the original geometric and symbolistic design of its original creator, architect Fred Lebensold. Beautiful wooden columns and ceiling coffers, added windows and skylight treatments, and gorgeous swirled stone flooring has been added to create illumination and welcoming warmth, not to mention the visual feast of Parliament, the Chateau Laurier, the National War Memorial and the Rideau Canal from inside the atrium. Practical additions of a welcoming desk, new box offices, wheelchair accessible ramps, elevators, and a dramatic increase in the number of washrooms are some of the other notable improvements.

Architect Don Schmitt, commissioned to draw up the plans for the NAC‘s rejuvenation, talks about his vision: “We designed a series of new wings leading from the canal, Confederation Square, and from Elgin Street. The new entry tower on Elgin Street takes its place as one of the markers of important public buildings in the city like the National Gallery, the Peace Tower, museums and other institutions, that really mark their entry with towers. From this point of arrival, you’ll no longer be descending down to the canal, then ascending back up to this level. You can now enter accessibly off Elgin, through the doors, straight into Southam Hall, or straight into the new elevators that will provide access to all levels, or straight into the new program spaces that are part of this wing. There is an ease of connection. We will now join the rank of other performing art spaces around the world which are really thinking not only about the performances, but the times in between, like before/after lunchtime and evening programming, talks/seminars, rehearsals. All this kind of animation that can happen in these spaces will be used 16 hours a day, and all connected to the street. The newly renovated and expanded Fourth Stage, a community focused performance space, has been purposefully designed to be a more intimate place for about 250 for music and performance.”

NAC President/CEO Peter Herrndorf (left) with Canadian architect Donald Schmitt.

NAC President/CEO Peter Herrndorf (left) with Canadian architect Donald Schmitt.

President and CEO of the NAC, Peter Herrndorf, also got behind this project, to aid in making sure it would be completed “on time, on budget, and with dazzling results”. He envisioned the NAC to become more like “the living room of the city”, bringing together performing arts with community engagement activities throughout the day.

Today, the NAC emerges from its original concrete structure into an open and modern public building.

“The generous funding for the project came from the previous Conservative Government, while the major renewal of our production facilities and performance halls is being funded by the current Government of Canada. And so, in the spirit of ecumenicism, I would like to thank both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and former Prime Minister Stephen Harper not only for their investment and vote of confidence in the NAC, but for the kind of support that this has given to the arts community across the country. The NAC will host a variety of related activities in our new, fully accessible public spaces, so that people naturally think of the NAC as a place to spend some free time… to meet a friend for coffee, to take part in an arts education program, to attend a talk, a free lunchtime concert, or simply as a place to spend a leisurely hour with your child. Earlier this year we marked what would have been Hamilton Southam’s 100th birthday. And if he were alive today, I know that he and the NAC’s original architect, Fred Lebensold, would have been proud of this next stage in the growth and development of the National Arts Centre. Today, the NAC emerges from its original concrete structure into an open and modern public building.”

The National Arts Centre is located at 1 Elgin Street. All are welcome to visit and explore their renovations.  Phase 2, which includes the second level atrium and Fourth Stage, will open in September 2017. Phase 3, which includes the expanded Panorama Room, will open in February 2018. For more information, please visit