Toronto, Ontario
Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects

Award of Excellence

This year’s awards recognize an exceptional amount of first-rate architecture rising in Toronto. Of the many contributions to the city’s cultural fabric, the intimate, low-budget Young Centre for the Performing Arts stands out.

Young Centre for the Performing Arts

The project’s two clients, Soulpepper Theatre Company and the George Brown College Theatre School, partnered to consolidate and improve their facilities, which had been less than adequate. Working with Toronto-based Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB), the partnership created a unique collaborative space, which raised the college’s public profile and doubled Soulpepper Theatre’s ticket sales and annual budget.

Located in the Distillery District, an old industrial neighborhood that is transforming into an arts precinct, the Young Centre consists of two converted 19th-century brick tank houses. A horizontal wood canopy joins the two converted structures, housing a café/bookstore space, which provides additional revenue by remaining open when performances are not in progress.

The 45,565-square-foot facility incorporates four flexible performance venues. In the theaters and throughout the building, the aesthetic is utilitarian and economical. KPMB treated the existing brick warehouses as “found objects,” leaving the masonry walls exposed to provide a consistent backdrop. The architects preserved original windows, as well as the existing cobblestone pavement at the building’s front.

The clients mutually benefit from the new partnership and the new building. The students of George Brown College appreciate the rare opportunity to share a home with professional actors, sit in on Soulpepper rehearsals, and attend performances for free. The theater company finds its repertoire augmented by the raw authenticity of the space. Soulpepper’s founding artistic director, Albert Schultz, describes the experience of performing at the Young Centre with deep satisfaction. “The relationship between the performer and the audience is one of remarkable intimacy. The acoustical qualities of the space are equally remarkable. An actor can speak conversationally and be heard. The sound is alive but never rings. But perhaps most remarkable is the warmth of the space when an actor looks into the house. These qualities are extremely rare individually. Together they are a miracle.” To celebrate these qualities, Soulpepper staged Thornton Wilder’s Our Town as its inaugural play, using the playwright’s specifications—no scenery or theatrical devices.

In their first year of operation, the new facilities enabled Soulpepper to increase the number of its productions by 80 percent and its total performances by 116 percent, resulting in an overall attendance increase of 103 percent. Owning a dedicated venue also gives the company direct access to its customer database, allowing for more direct marketing, customer analysis, and fund-raising efficiency.

The clients and patrons aren’t the only ones pleased with the Young Centre. The industrial palette of redbrick and dark timber reflects that of the surrounding community, which benefits from a raised public profile. The influx of theatergoers increases revenues for local businesses and attracts new galleries, restaurants, and shops. The continuing contribution to the district’s identity as an artistic center evidences good design’s ability to add vitality to a client’s operations and also those of a larger community.