Update November 23, 2015: The NAC has announced that renovations will begin in December, 2015, and the Fourth Stage will close from spring 2016 to July, 2017. More details shortly.

The National Arts Centre (NAC) announced an extensive renovation today – one that may disrupt jazz shows and the jazz festival in Ottawa in 2016.

The renovation will surround the current building with new glass wings on three sides, move the centre's primary entrance to Elgin Street, and upgrade the performance spaces, washrooms, and lobbies. It is scheduled to be ready in 2017, in time for Canada's 150th birthday.

Design concept for the renovated National Arts Centre, Elgin Street view, with the front windows of the updated Fourth Stage (Diamond Schmitt Architects)
Design concept for the renovated National Arts Centre, Elgin Street view, with the front windows of the updated Fourth Stage (Diamond Schmitt Architects)
But its construction will require the closure of the Fourth Stage (which fronts on Elgin Street) for an indeterminate period in 2016. The NAC's Director of Communications, Rosemary Thompson, said “we don't actually know exactly how long it will take to reconstruct that portion of the building. The entire construction phase is 12 to 18 months. But that face of the building I don't exactly know yet.”

In the OttawaJazzScene.ca Jazz Favourites Poll this spring, the Fourth Stage was voted as local jazz fans' Favourite Jazz Concert Venue. The stage is heavily used by the NAC Presents series and by local musicians to present jazz and other shows.

The Ottawa Jazz Festival, which runs in late June, has regularly held its Improv Invitational series in the Fourth Stage, with two or three shows every night. The jazz festival is already facing the loss of its main outdoor venue in 2016, with Confederation Park undergoing major renovations, and has not yet found a substitute outdoor space.

Thompson said NAC Presents programming would not be affected for 2015, and she expected the Fourth Stage will continue to be open for the next 12 months. “It's 2016 that's the issue, and we'll have more clarity in the next weeks and months to come.”

The project's architect, Donald Schmitt, said the Fourth Stage would be closed for “months, not years”, but could not be more specific when asked if that would be three months or six months or more.

Beautiful, quieter – and with better washrooms

NAC CEO Peter Herrndorf said the revitalization “will enhance quite significantly the Fourth Stage ... we will come back with a bigger, better, more perfected Fourth Stage.”

“It's going to be beautiful,” Thompson said. “It's always been a great location but now it's going to have pride of place in this extraordinary entrance with this incredible view of the capital.”

Schmitt said the Fourth Stage will be “reorganized, within roughly the existing envelope. It's in the same footprint. Better acoustics, better lighting, better washrooms, better support for all the activities. But it's going to still maintain its accessible community orientation with a separate entrance off Elgin. So a lot of the characteristics will be the same and it's simply tweaking and improving the quality of the performance space.”

The Fourth Stage space was originally occupied by a Coles bookstore with windows fronting on Elgin Street. In 2000, it was converted from a meeting room into the stage, in order “to provide a creative home for the many gifted performers in the National Capital Region” (according to the NAC's 2000-1 Annual Report).

How the the Fourth Stage acoustics and experience will actually be improved remains to be seen – and heard – however. Jazz listeners who voted for it as the Favourite Jazz Concert Venue frequently cited “the sound quality” and “great acoustics” as reasons for choosing it. Respondents also described it as being “intimate” and having a “a nice cozy down-to-earth vibe”; one respondent chose it because it “almost feels like a NYC club”. Numerous respondents also referred to the proximity to performers and the club-like experience as assets.

The renovations will also include improvements to the centre's other stages – in particular, Schmitt said, to isolate them from outside noises. “You don't want to hear a fire truck siren or a big noise in the middle of a quiet piece of performance so that isolation is very important.” He said entrances and lobbies around the stages would also be improved.

"A transparent, light-filled NAC that graces Confederation Square"

And, most importantly, it will reorient the centre to face Ottawa's downtown.

“The NAC is in what I would describe as the most ideal location in all of Ottawa. There's just one problem: when the building was constructed it was designed to face the beauty of the Canal,” said Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. “So it's no surprise that people often wonder why the back of the NAC is turned against the striking architecture of Parliament Hill, the iconic monument that is the National War Memorial. It's time for a big rethink.”

“When I first saw Don's drawings for a transparent, light-filled NAC that graced Confederation Square, I was quite frankly awe-struck,” Herrndorf said. “It was clear that the new design would fundamentally transform the relationship that the new NAC had with the national capital and the way it would welcome people into its hall.”

The centre will have a new main entrance off Elgin Street, on the north-west corner of the building, which will connect with the Southam Hall mezzanine level. It will feature a hexagonal tower of glass and steel, whose geometry will echo NAC's original design, and which will be able to display high-definition images: stills, video, or live feeds of NAC performances.

The building will be expanded along Elgin Street, on its north side, and along the canal, with new glass wings. Schmitt noted that the current building is largely “windowless and opaque”, composed of precast concrete elements. “It turns a blank facade to those who want to be drawn in.”

He said glass was a natural way to display the centre's programming and make it more welcoming and visible. “Glass is the counterpoint, to create a balance to the blank facade.” But he also emphasized he was a great fan of the centre's current architecture because of how it expresses a geometric order through its hexagons.

Herrndorf said that “From the very beginning, Don Schmitt approached this project with the utmost respect for the work of the architect Fred Lebensold who designed the NAC in the 1960s. Don insisted that the architectural rejuvenation of the National Arts Centre should respect and extend the spirit of Mr. Lebensold's original creation.”

Expanding and upgrading spaces

Schmitt emphasized that the building (with the exception of the Fourth Stage) would remain open during construction. “All the programs that happen in Southam Hall and elsewhere, those programs have to continue. The NAC will remain open for business through this whole period. Things like the Fourth Stage will have to close for a few months but other than that it's really going to be open for business.”

The renovation will expand public spaces for education, pre-concert gatherings, small concerts, meetings and rentals, and public events. The centre's total catering, meeting and event capacity will increase from 7,500 square feet to 18,000 square feet. And its improvements (for example, to washrooms and lobbies) will bring the NAC into compliance with modern standards for performing arts centres, and address many of the centre's accessibility challenges for the disabled.

Some of the building's existing mechanical and electrical building systems – almost 50 years old – will be upgraded, and the new additions will be designed and built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.

A hard deadline of Canada Day, 2017

Today's announcement confirmed $110.5M in federal funding for the project, with Heritage Minister Shelly Glover and Baird (also responsible for the National Capital Region) both making the announcement.

Glover also emphasized the construction deadine. “We're expecting it to be finished in 2017.”

The NAC was a Centennial project to celebrate Canada's 100th anniversary in 1967, but ended up opening in 1969, missing that date by two years.

Schmitt and NAC staff have been working on the schematic concept design for the renovation for the last 2½ years.

“There's been a lot of work been done to date,” Schmitt said. “What underpins the budgeting for the project was basically a complete design with quite significant engineering already done. So we've got a lot of background work happened over the last couple of years so there's a very good understanding of what needs to happen, and we're continuing to build on that. So we're busy working on it now. We've got to be because 2017 July is 30 months away.”

He said that he expected construction to start in 6 to 7 months. His Toronto firm of Diamond and Schmitt Architects has also designed other large cultural projects such as the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto (2006), the Maison Symphonique in Montréal (2011) and the New Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia (2013).

    – Alayne McGregor

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