On with the show

One of my most enduring memories as a toddler visiting Vancouver grandparents in the 1950s was riding the number-17 tram across Cambie Street Bridge to visit the infinite pleasures of the sprawling Woodward’s department store. For a child, its lavish Christmas windows were a treasure while parents flocked to its unusually varied food floor, a rarity for Canadian supermarkets. Following Woodward’s 1993 bankruptcy, efforts to revitalize the site failed until 2004 when a city-run competition handed Westbank/Peterson Investment Group with Henriquez Partners Architects the right to develop a dynamic, mixed-use project. The resulting complex includes Simon Fraser University’s new 130,000-square-foot Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. 

Proscenium Architecture + Interiors Inc. in joint venture with CEI Architecture were hired by SFU to design the teaching complex within Gregory Henriquez’s base building. “The success of Goldcorp’s spaces,” says Proscenium principle Kori Chan, “lies in its concrete frame that is specifically designed both to meet structural needs and to accommodate large, free-span spaces reaching over 40 feet in height.” The Centre, therefore, is as much about “interior architecture” as it is about interior design.  

Certain load points could not be compromised, however, a problem made even more difficult by the social housing tower resting on the roughly triangular-shaped, six-storey (two-below-ground) podium. This required a stacking of the two main, multi-level interior volumes. Thus, the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema (with lecture hall) sits atop the flexible, black-box Fay and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, isolated by an intervening nine-foot-thick concrete slab. The latter’s finishes were selected for both their acoustic and aesthetic properties. Split-face concrete block and rough-faced brick provide contrast through their muted colours and varied textures, “but also act as effective reflective surfaces for scattering acoustic energy as well as being highly lightable surfaces,” says Chan. Movable curtains do likewise, but when drawn over the reflective surfaces, a softer room, both visually and acoustically, emerges. Infill maple panels conceal mechanical and electrical systems while countering the space’s eclectic industrial vocabulary.

The theatre reflects both SFU’s and the architects’ approach to interior detailing.  Simon Fraser wanted an industrial feel, a “factory for learning.” Henriquez’s robust structural grid of exposed concrete, which permits generous window openings along the building’s perimeter, along with Proscenium/CEI’s polished concrete floors, ensure a definite industrial-loft feel. In some areas, such as the top-level dance studios, huge window expanses opening onto the messy panorama of the city define the very essence of these light-infused spaces. “When it comes to detailing the interior,” says Chan, “we like to bring inside what is outside creating continuity in the material palette.” In addition to exposed concrete, therefore, the exterior’s industrial-hued reddish brick is transferred inside, a gesture that also ties spaces back into nearby Gastown’s materiality. The use of new and reclaimed wood both reflects SFU’s mountaintop home while providing contrasting warmth to colder concrete surfaces. Indeed, wood, primarily naturally stained maple, is used extensively for trellises, screens, panels and dropped ceilings – helping to define and soften the hard edges of lobbies, student gathering areas and performance venues. Maple panels are also used as the stair guards on the main staircase. A grid of punched holes, a motif carried through in baffle boards and wall panels in many of the venues, signals contemporary art’s high digital content. 

Arrayed around three sides of the stack of major event venues are smaller performance and rehearsal spaces. Between the stack and these other venues, Proscenium/CEI has carved out a series of lobbies and informal student gathering spaces. Three of these lively spaces connect floors visually with two- or three-level atriums penetrated by open stairs boasting robust structures and smart detailing. For example, the building’s primary ground-floor lobby is a wide hallway stretching from Hasting Street, past the Centre’s street-exposed visual arts Audain Gallery and out to the Cordova Street plaza after crossing an interior bridge over a three-level atrium space. The lobby is defined by a wooden half-trellis arching over the space and articulated by very narrow cathode light tubes running counter to the canopy’s rich maple struts. Cool, ice-like and back-lit glass counters stretch along one wall, while large wheeled display panels attached to the opposite brick wall pivot out across the high-gloss terrazzo concrete floor. These provide temporary exhibition space. The atrium drops to the Theatre’s below-grade lobby, its three levels unified vertically by a brick wall highlighted by back-lit glass bricks and a descending bundle of metal ventilation tubes.  

Two additional two-level atriums, with open stairs linking the second and third floors, serve the cinema as well as two double-height studios, one for dance and the other for theatre. The suspended and folded steel frames of the stairs act as strong sculptural elements, while acrylic c-channels inserted in their concrete treads make the surfaces appear to dance with light. Glass stair guards minimize any sense of bulk. In the primarily white painted multimedia atrium, generous windows flood the space with natural light and engage the city. The windowless cinema lobby, however, boasts powerful brute concrete beams and a double-height, unpainted concrete block wall that has been softened and articulated with a march of vertically fixed reclaimed fir beams.  

In the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, the Proscenium/CEI interior reflects a fine balance of being a functional yet comfortable “factory of learning” for a 24/7 student body while providing enough “gritty elegance” to excite the public making use of a welcome raft of new performance venues.  cI