In 2007, a Toronto Based design consortium made up of Perkins+Will, Plant Architect, Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects and Adrian Blackwell Urban Projects won an international design competition for the revitalization of Nathan Phillips Square – the most significant public space in the city of Toronto and the “front door” to the iconic City Hall designed by Finish architect Vijlio Revell in 1961.
The competition winning design entitled Agora Theatre, celebrates the theatre of urban life and brings a rigorous overlay of sustainability to the 11 acre public square. Key strategies include opening the centre of the square to create a space of infinite potential, intensifying the bio mass on the square through the creation of a new urban forest and energizing the perimeter of the square through the creation of a programmed yet porous edge condition.
One of the most significant architectural elements on the square, now in the later stages of construction is the new permanent stage structure, the detail design of which has been led by the Toronto office of Perkins + Will. The design intent of the stage structure is manifold. At a basic programmatic level, the stage will replace generations of ad hoc temporary performance structures that clutter the square on an annual basis during the warm months. The new stage will provide a covered performance space with an overhead grid for lighting and stage rigging, back stage space and a full complement of support spaces including dressing rooms, a green room and AV support below the stage. The new stage will also function as an extension of the public space of the square. The base of the theatre is designed as a set of broad public stairs and platforms that connect to the existing elevated walkway structure framing the square. The design will effectively animate the upper level public spaces of the square and reinforce the notion of urban theatre. When not in use for productions, the stage will be furnished with café tables and chairs and provide a unique prospect and gathering space protected from extreme sun and rain by the glazed theatre roof.
As a whole, the master-plan for the revitalization brings an overlay of material richness and landscape texture and colour that have always been wanting. The formal language is generally restrained and deferential to Revell’s boldly sculptural towers and council chamber. An exception to this restraint, the Theatre manifests itself as a bold sculptural presence on the north-west quadrant of the Square. Joining the original design elements of the arched ceremonial ramp to the east and the three concrete fountain arches to the south, the new Theatre acts as a defining element on the Square, framing the view towards the City Hall Towers and Council chamber. The design of the theatre achieves its complex programmatic and urbanistic agendas within a highly simplified and abstracted geometrical language. Numerous iterations and refinements of both the structural and theatre support components lead to a distilled expression which resonates with Revell’s mid-century modernism while clearly reading as a contemporary insertion.
Two slender V-shaped steel columns frame the North and South edges of the stage, emerging from the monolithic stone and concrete base and connecting at the highest level with two canted box beams spanning across the Eastern and Western edges. The dominant reading is a continuous ribbon of white steel that folds and cants to define the space of performance. The inspiration for the balancing V columns was taken from a series of diagonal concrete struts that support the dome of Revell’s council chamber. The super structure, painted white, supports a light tubular space frame with a fritted glass canopy above. Within the space frame are numerous “strong points” which create a highly flexible armature for all aspects of theatrical staging. A series of retractable weather and black-out curtains are discretely housed within the space frame and can be lowered at the edge of the roof structure to create a controlled theatrical environment or raised when the stage is not in use. Both seasonally and on a daily basis, the stage can quickly convert from a performance space supporting the City’s diverse compliment of cultural events to a public space that supports the theatre of urban life. The permanent stage is scheduled to open for events over the festive season of 2012/13.