Professional Lighting & Production Features

The National Arts Centre: Rejuvenating a Beacon of Canadian Arts & Culture

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Professional Lighting & Production magazine.

By Andrew King

Since officially opening its doors in 1969, the National Arts Centre (NAC) has welcomed a diverse and unparalleled array of Canadian and international artists and performers to its various stages in the National Capital.

The NAC was one of several high-profile projects launched by the Federal Government to commemorate Canada’s centenary in 1967, and so it’s fitting that, as part of the Canada 150 celebrations that swept across the country in 2017, the NAC was amidst a federally-supported $225-million architectural and production renewal project that is transforming its architecture with the goal of creating a more inviting and engaging space for patrons and the public.

The first of two phases of this significant overhaul is the recently completed, $110.5 million Architectural Rejuvenation phase, a collaboration with Toronto’s Diamond Schmitt Architects that included the addition of a transparent, fully accessible lobby and atrium that reorients the facility’s main entrance to Elgin Street and adds new spaces for education and performance.

The idea was to make the NAC more inviting not only to world-class performers and productions, but especially to the general public as a place to create connections and build community through a variety of programming and activities.

In 2015, the NAC secured funding from the federal government for what would be the Architectural Rejuvenation phase of its planned overhaul.

Whereas the NAC’s main public entrance previously faced the Rideau Canal, the key component of the project was a modern and sleek addition to the facility that would relocate the front entrance to Elgin Street while significantly increasing the size of the lobby, adding new communal spaces and meeting rooms, and expanding the onsite food and beverage options.

It also included the addition of the Kipnes Lantern – the signature, public-facing feature of the Architectural Rejuvenation phase. By day, it’s a three-storey hexagonal glass tower that anchors the project’s central theme of “transparency” and ties in seamlessly with the rest of the new addition and the existing brutalist structures comprising the NAC campus. By night, the transparent LED screens lining four of the tower’s six faces light up to display spectacular imagery of Canada’s leading artists, productions, and more for anyone with a clear sightline.

[Pictured above: Canada Ballroom]

Inside the expansion’s glass walls are: a significant overhaul to the Fourth Stage, a small but versatile performance space; the sizeable Canada Ballroom, which can be subdivided into smaller public spaces; the O’Born Room, an elegant space with a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding city; the Lantern Room, which, as the name implies, is the multi-purpose hexagonal room on the second floor of the Kipnes Lantern tower; the smaller City Room; more washroom facilities; improved access to the NAC’s main performance space, Southam Hall; a relocated box office; and public drop-in space where people are welcome to sit, eat, meet, and even host small performances, lectures, and other activities.

When Professional Lighting & Production speaks with Alex Gazalé, the director of the NAC’s Production Renewal Project, he’s watching someone give a presentation at the foot of the atrium’s wide Glass & Thorsteinson Staircase connecting the street level with the terrace level – an intended use for that particular feature as indicated by some production lighting fixtures overhead. “Anywhere can be a stage,” he says of an underlying theme of the project.

Gazalé has been with the NAC for nearly 30 years, occupying a range of different roles throughout that time. Needless to say, he’s thrilled about this series of enhancements to his longtime professional home.

He says the roots of this project extend back several years prior to funding being secured. About five years ago, the NAC hired some architectural and engineering firms to look at its campus as a whole and report on its architectural, electrical, mechanical, and production infrastructure. The goal behind that assessment was to develop a plan and outlook for the NAC for the next 50 years.

“Very quickly, those different projects merged into one,” Gazalé explains. “There was no way to talk about what was deficient in one spot without talking about where it stemmed from, so we did this massive study and integrated it so the entire design team of architects and engineers were working together.”

Toronto’s Diamond Schmitt Architects was the firm that piloted the Architectural Rejuvenation portion of the project, working with various collaborators, including PCL Construction as the general contractor, Crossey Engineering, New York’s Fisher Dachs Associates as the theatre consultant, and a number of other firms for specific subsections.

[Pictured above: Lantern Room]

The various house, architectural, and performance lighting system specs that occupy the expanded spaces came from different sources. Christie Lites ended up being the successful bidder on several of those, including: the architectural lighting control systems as spec’d by Crossey (for fixtures spec’d by Montreal’s Lightemotion), performance venue power and control systems for the Fourth Stage, Atrium and City Room, O’Born Room, and Lantern Room as spec’d by Fisher Dachs; and a direct-to-owner entertainment fixture package for various public and performance spaces, including the terrace-level Rossy Pavilion, G&T Staircase, and City Room.

Almost the entire complement of lighting products for the new addition is LED-based, the main exception being dimmers at the Fourth Stage to accommodate incandescent fixtures. “Everywhere else it’s relay panels, and all new fixtures are LED fixtures,” Gazalé confirms.

Peter Eady, sales account manager with Christie Lites Ottawa, says that while the vast majority of the spec’d systems were from ETC, the production fixture complement is a mix of Martin and Robe moving lights, Chroma-Q Color Forces, ETC Source Four LED Series 2 Lustr lekos, and others. A compact ETC Gio @5 console was sourced to drive that series of fixtures.

“There was lots of stream-crossing during the process,” Eady acknowledges about the different sub-contracts Christie was to fulfill. “We realized fairly early on that, regardless of whose path it was going through, architectural or theatrical, we were going to make sure it worked for Alex and the team.”

[Pictured above: O'Born Room]

In virtually every design aspect, including the lighting, great care was taken to ensure that these new enhancements married seamlessly with the existing campus and its facilities. While the glass walls of the atrium space contrast with the bare concrete of the original brutalist buildings, the continuity with unique geometric shapes and a general lack of 90-degree angles makes for a seamless aesthetic that strikes a beautiful balance between old and new.

Similarly, the lighting design for the new spaces is consistent with those in existing spaces while taking advantage of LED and other recent tech innovations.

Gazalé references the signature “points of light” motif throughout the campus, noting that there are 1,967 individual lamps in Southam Hall’s house lighting system alone (remember, the centenary), and likely upwards of 3,000 throughout the building. “So we wanted to recreate the idea of points of light in this new design, but not necessarily to that degree.”

As such, the points of light theme is consistent throughout the house lighting in the new areas between each line in the coffered ceilings. Those lights are tied into a control system that can cater the intensity to suit holidays, special events, or even programming taking place in one of the performance venues.

Up until this point, the networking infrastructure throughout the NAC campus was copper-based and nearing the end of its lifespan, and so a significant portion of the Architectural Rejuvenation phase involved a switch to digital. What’s more, spaces like the communal food and beverage area in the lobby are future-proofed with a backbone for a theatrical lighting system.

“Underlying that, we decided we also had to make sure the electrical infrastructure under all of that new sound and lighting equipment is redone,” Gazalé shares, speaking to components of both the Architectural Rejuvenation phase and the ongoing $114.9 million Production Renewal phase that will see the refurbishment of the NAC’s performance halls and production facilities.

As Gazalé previously mentioned, the goal behind both phases of the NAC’s renewal is to make the space more inviting and appealing to the general public in hopes of fostering community and an increased appreciation of the arts.

Now, in addition to its lauded performance spaces, the NAC boasts multi-purpose facilities just as suited to parenting classes and small artistic performances as they are to major corporate functions and even special events like a dinner for the heads of state and diplomats from the G7 nations when they convene in Ottawa.

“We decided a long time ago that with both [the Architectural Rejuvenation and Production Renewal phases], we would not shut down operations save for brief periods of time,” Gazalé notes, and impressively, they managed to stick to that.

“One obstacle we hit and that we learned from was that some of this was an architectural project and was contracted one way and the rest was theatrical and contracted that way, but it still had to come together in the end,” Gazalé candidly explains. “Field Service .CA, the [programming, commissioning, and training firm subcontracted by Christie Lites], was phenomenal. When they were onsite, it didn’t matter which of the two systems they were here to commission; they worked with both and made sure everything was moving in the right direction as a whole. They also pointed out issues that might emerge later while the walls were still open, to make sure nothing was overlooked, and that was far above and beyond.”

Eady elaborates: “Wayne [Korhonen] and Nelson [Anselmo] and the Field Service team did a complete walkthrough with the owner and electrician, pointing out loose ends in terms of programming between the two systems and coordinating with electrical contacts to get wiring in the right places and ensure circuits are joined where they’re supposed to be – basically, noting everything that should be corrected to get these systems working as designed and desired by the client.”

He acknowledges that his team faced an aggressive set of deadlines. “As you can appreciate, there’s a lot of background work by the consultants to get these packages designed, and then there’s budget allocations, so by the time it gets on the street, you’ve got to close it and start drawings and delivery right away. Fortunately, because we work in the industry we do, we’re used to aggressive deadlines and know the show has to happen regardless.”

Another challenge pertained to the NAC’s unique geometry. “It’s a 50-year-old building, and they’re adding new elements and getting things through walls and around existing infrastructure,” offers Eady. “That can certainly be tricky for an electrical contractor – especially with pretty much everything in the building being an angle. If there’s a square room in that building, it’s probably a small office,” he jokes. “I expect it took a fair amount of research just to find where things were going and how they got there. It’s one thing for me to say something has to go from this device to this device to this device; on the ground, that might be a very complex task.”

Those challenges were compounded by the fact that 2017’s Canada 150 celebrations included a sizeable number of construction and renovation projects – especially in the national capital. Subsequently, there was a significant labour shortage, with professionals from various trades flying in from far and wide and still unable to meet the demand.

Gazalé praises Christie Lites Project Manager Justin Kim for his work throughout the process. “He kept the information flowing back and forth between the various organizations, which was understandably challenging considering the scale of this job.”

Eady adds that Christie Technical Project Manager Sean Stephens was integral to the later stages of the installation. “He brings a depth of knowledge on the equipment side to bolster Justin’s expertise, focusing on interconnectedness of devices and liaising with Field Service to make sure the work was done as drawn.”

Christie Lites has enjoyed a long partnership with the NAC as a go-to production resource for service, support, and equipment procurement, so Eady stresses the importance of properly servicing an ongoing client throughout the construction process.

“I’ve been going into that building for over 25 years now,” Eady shares. “I’ve known Alex and a lot of his colleagues for a number of years and we’re really invested in these institutions and the people working for them.”

Following nearly 20 years at the helm of the NAC, longtime CEO Peter Herrndorf plans to step down from his role this summer; undoubtedly, the refreshed campus will be a cornerstone of his legacy. His vision was an inviting space in the heart of the nation’s capital that inspired an appreciation for both community and culture, and Gazalé points out examples of that vision being realized by simply examining his surroundings.

“We’re really growing into the use of these spaces,” he says, pointing to patrons conversing over coffee at Equater Coffee, people coming in to eat lunch and play board games during the week, and the joyful sounds that emanate from the City Room on Toddler Tuesdays.

“I love the idea of people crossing paths on their way to a symphony performance in Southam Hall or an improv class in a studio and making connections,” he says. “That’s what we wanted to achieve with this project, and we’re definitely getting there.”


A new architectural icon in the heart of the National Capital, the Kipnes Lantern is the signature element of the NAC’s rejuvenation. The three-storey hexagonal glass tower frames the facility's new entrance on Elgin Street and features the largest transparent LED screen in North America.

A collaboration between Toronto’s Diamond Schmitt Architects and Montreal-based multimedia entertainment studio Moment Factory, the Kipnes Lantern features dynamic visuals that bring the range of the NAC’s programming to life. It showcases artistic tributes to the worlds of dance, theatre, and music; content celebrating special events or occasions; and promotes upcoming productions at the NAC along with performances from stages across the country.

The see-through LED displays are an extension of the transparency that defines the new public wings of the facility, designed to provide a close connection with downtown Ottawa.

The team from Diamond Schmitt, led by senior associate Jennifer Mallard, considered projection and a number of other potential display solutions for the Lantern before settling on transparent LED technology.

An RFP was issued for the hardware, with Burnaby, BC-based firm ClearLED – a world leader in transparent LED displays, screens, and video walls – submitting the winning bid.

The displays are mounted inside of the structure, negating the need for a solution that could withstand the elements and allowing for increased transparency and a higher resolution. Ultimately, they were able to achieve a 16 mm pixel pitch for the approximately 4,300 sq. ft. display that covers four sides of the Lantern. There are also four smaller and solid portrait-oriented LED screens lining the building’s Elgin Street façade.

The system includes daylight sensors that automatically adjust the image brightness, which can reach a maximum of 8,000 nits.

Christie Digital’s Pandoras Box Server, a 3D content compositing, rendering, and scheduling solution, drives the system. Moment Factory not only provided custom content packages, but also created templates that will allow the NAC to load its own content going forward. The door is open for future collaboration as well.

The Kipnes Lantern was first lit as part of the NAC’s Be Here for the New Year festivities on Dec. 31, 2017, officially celebrating the completion of the architectural rejuvenation phase of the NAC’s overhaul and a fitting end to a year of Canada 150 celebrations.


Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Professional Lighting & Production.

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About Andrew King
Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief at Professional Lighting & Production
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