Canada’s National Ballet School on Jarvis Street, Toronto

Melding heritage and contemporary architecture to make a ballet studio dance

In 2005 the National Ballet School of Canada was expanded from an existing heritage mansion to a state-of-the-art facility in downtown Toronto. The structures, designed with glass, steel and architectural stone block include the modern Celia Franca Centre with 12 dance studios and the Margaret McCain Academic Building. These surround the 1856 home of former Ontario premier Sir Oliver Mowat which serves as administrative offices. The play between old and new exudes a modern edge and elegance in a training school that carefully exemplifies the art, movement, dance and creativity housed within.

Architect Mitchell Hall, Partner at KPMB Architects and long-time champion of Shouldice Designer Stone (SDS), was inspired by Eadweard Muybridge, an eighteenth-century English photographer who pioneered studies of motion in still photography. “Part of the idea was, how do you capture movement with a static material?”

He wanted to make the structure feel as alive as the movement being taught inside, and he knew SDS was right for the project.

“How do you capture movement with a static material?”

Manufacturing the stone, and creating the illusion of movement

Shouldice had their work cut out for them. SDS provided 10 natural colours – browns, greys, and blacks. Three colours were eventually chosen, but the architects wanted to see the three colours blended as one.

Shouldice Product Development & Quality Manager Mike Gibbons says they began testing colour amounts using their batching system, which mixes sands and aggregates to produce the perfect product. In the end they created a stone colour they named ‘Ballon’ – a blend of ballet and National.

Supervising mason Ken Lewis, VP Field Operations at Limen Group, said that the architects had another idea when it came to installing the blocks on the exterior of the building. “They wanted it to look fluid, different. Most architects at the end of the day tell you exactly how they want the stone laid out by colour.”

“It speaks to that extra quality, that extra effort, that extra love.”
— Ken Lewis describing Shouldice’s careful manufacturing processes

But in this case, Hall was not going to give the masons a drawing. Holding them in highest esteem, he asked them to create a random pattern. He believed that having the masons choose stones randomly would create the suggestion of movement in the structure. He told the masons: “Load up the scaffolding with these proportions, and don’t think before you pick up the block.”

According to Lewis, the architect’s direction was unusual. “When you lay masonry, you lay course by course and you don’t want the same colours stacked in the next course.” Lewis and his team maintained the ratios and laid out the architectural stone blocks. Typically, masons carefully select each stone so that colours aren’t repeated in the next course but here the random selection was precisely what Hall intended – some arbitrary repetition in colour resulting in a fluid effect elevated by the blocks themselves.

A timeless structure, fit for Canada’s elite ballet dancers mastering their craft

Ultimately, the collaboration between three groups – a stone manufacturer, an architectural firm and a masonry firm helped the intricacies of art and construction come together on the façade of a famous Canadian landmark, but it couldn’t have been done without Shouldice Designer Stone. “Shouldice product is a beautiful product. It’s in the manufacturing. Sometimes when you are working with a mass production company, they aren’t taking the time in the kiln with the product.” said Lewis. Gibbons offered that their practice of labelling each pallet with the contract number and project and product information has long been a valued practice. Lewis gets it, “That’s really great and it speaks to that extra quality, that extra effort, that extra love.”

The final building is stunning to look at, and frames dancers between modern and heritage architectural elements to produce a truly unique structure. Canada’s National Ballet School is a masterpiece all Canadians can be proud of.

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