Recycle and Reuse: The Young Centre for the Performing Arts

They used to make whiskey here; in the 20's they sent a lot of it south across Lake Ontario to slake American thirsts. Rows of tank houses were filled with casks of aging Gooderham and Worts. Then it was idle for many years, used as film sets for period movies (like Cinderella Man) and then bought, restored, filled with cappuccinos and condos (you can't see the CN tower in the background any more).

Now a couple of the tankhouses and the spaces in between have been converted into the Young Centre for the Performing Arts for Soulpepper Theatre Company and George Brown College; Architect Tom Payne of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg was handed a budget of $ 200 bucks a foot, a number KPMB hasn't worked with since Barton Myers' name was on the shingle.

Yet Tom pulled it off. As Ian Chodikoff says in Canadian Architect, "Payne's vision for the Young Centre was inspired by the simple elegance of the original brick tankhouse buildings. Payne treated the buildings as found objects, using their existing masonry walls as backdrops to the overall program."

Interior finishes don't get any more basic: concrete floors, brick walls, paint. Yet the warmth of the brick and the douglas fir trusses spanning between the tankhouses make it cozy and comfortable.

I attended Schiller's Mary Stuart last night, and had plenty of time to admire the simple yet careful detailing in the Charles and Marilyn Baillie theatre, shown above. Lighting is industrial, finishes are the existing brick and structure, so different from KPMB's usual ultra-refined product, a real throwback to their early days where they were the kings of industrial chic.

The tankhouses weren't much; without the context of the distillery district they wouldn't have lasted a month, just another boring background building to push out of the way for new buildings in a city where demolition by neglect is so common. We have tried to make the point before that every building, no matter how banal and seemingly worthless, can be turned into a gem by a talented architect and a client with vision. Demolition wastes not only materials and embodied energy, but character and history that can't be replaced at any cost. Tom Payne and the Young Centre prove that adaptive reuse can be affordable, effective and stunning, and that demolition is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Developers Cityscape deserve so much credit for saving this complex, as does KPMB for pulling this off.

Photos for KPMB by Tom Arban

Tags: Toronto