Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts

Queen's University Queen's University
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Architecture & Design

The Isabel is world-renowned Snøhetta's first Canadian project, designed in partnership with N45

[exterior photo of old wall]

The mandate? Design a new performing arts centre for Queen's University.

Put like that, it sounds simple.

In fact, it was anything but. In addition to a performance hall, the building needed to accommodate the very different needs of theatre, music, and film and media students. And all fit within a compact piece of land that, while it featured fantastic lakeside views, demanded fitting a new building around substantial historic structures.

That was the challenge for Ottawa-based architects N45 and Oslo's Snøhetta.

The Norwegian firm is well known for designing a number of significant buildings worldwide, among them the Library at Alexandria in Egypt as well as impressive performance halls in Oslo and Busan, South Korea. the Isabel is Snøhetta's first-ever Canadian commission.

The firms’ winning design located the bulk of the new building within the courtyard created by the historic brewery and stable – and then incorporated them directly into the new facility. Repurposing the former brewery meant removing the existing pine, hemlock and spruce floors, which was later re-milled and used to finish the interior of the building's lobby.

If the Isabel can be said to have a heart, it is the 566-seat performance hall. Virtually a building within a building, no part of the hall touches the rest of the structure directly and its two-foot-thick walls so effectively muffles sound that even if someone outside the hall were pounding on the floor with a hammer, the audience inside wouldn’t hear it.

The room's shape and form was driven by the international design firms, Arup and Theatre Projects Consultants, who worked worked closely with Snøhetta and N45 to design an intimate and dynamic performance space that wraps the audience around the room (this follows Arup's and Theatre Projects' collaboration with Snøhetta on the Oslo Opera House).

Theatre Projects seamlessly and discreetly integrated the lighting and rigging systems to maintain Snøhetta's clean, modern design for the performance hall. In the Isabel's 100-seat flexible theatre, Theatre Projects created a versatile space that can be rearranged into various stage configurations providing countless creative options. The acoustics and audiovisual systems were designed by New York-based Arup using their Virtual SoundLab technology, which allows the environment of a space to be listened to before it is even built. Retractable motorized acoustic drapes (designed by Theatre Projects to Arup's requirements) allow the performance hall sound to be customized even further.

From the project inception, Arup's team has collaborated with the architects at Snøhetta and N45 to create the pristine acoustics of the Isabel’s performance hall as well as the Principal Emerita Karen Hitchcock Rehearsal Hall, whose acoustics are designed to the same high standard as the main venue. It is rare that sound engineers work so closely with the architects from day one.

When Robert Matthews, the lead architect from N45, first saw the site he recalls being stunned by the view – the white-capped lake, with all its "presence and power." Thanks to its large expanses of glass, the Isabel's design draws the lake into the building while its sinuous steel roof echoes the glistening waters. Together they tie what Matthews justly calls "one of the great concert halls in eastern Canada" to its waterside environment.

Funding

Bring the Isabel from concept to completion has been funded by several major contributions. The total cost of the project is $72 million.

  • The Bader family: $31 million
  • The Government of Canada: $15 million through the Major Infrastructure Component of the 2007 Building Canada Fund.
  • The Government of Ontario: $15 million
  • The City of Kingston: $6 million
  • Queen’s University: $5 million