Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts could get a stunning new redesign

A group led by Toronto architects has won an international design competition to remake a performing arts centre downtown.

Team led by Hariri Pontarini Architects won competition with design called Transparence

A team led by Hariri Pontarini Architects is proposing to remake the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in this image. The team won a design competition for the performing arts centre. (Submitted by Hariri Pontarini Architects)

A group led by Toronto architects has won an international design competition to remake a performing arts centre downtown.

Hariri Pontarini Architects, with the help of four other firms, will redesign the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, the city announced on Friday. The centre houses two theatres on Front Street East.

Five other teams were shortlisted for the opportunity, two city agencies, CreateTO and TO Live, said in a news release. 

The winning design, called Transparence, features a transparent facade that will wrap around the building, incorporating elements of Indigenous design. Those elements include the exterior, which was inspired by the the role of Wampum belts in storytelling, artistry and craft, and a circular ceremonial fire at Front and Scott streets.

The idea is to make the building more open to the public, according to Siamak Hariri, founding architect of Hariri Pontarini Architects.

"That was a big part of how we started — how do we create an environment that is radically accessible, radically open, and truly brings the city in."

'The whole audience gasped'

Hariri brought on two Indigenous firms, Tawaw Architecture Collective and Smoke Architecture, to help develop Indigenous elements of the design. The team also includes LMN Architects and the firm SLA.

Hariri called the task "Herculean."

acoustic hall
A view of the acoustic hall as imaged by Hariri Pontarini Architects and its team. (Submitted by Hariri Pontarini Architects)

"It was a terrific team effort. It was dozens of people working frantically for months really to put this together," he said. "I would say it was sort of like an orchestra. We all worked very hard."

Hariri said recognizing the diversity of Toronto was essential.

"It brings the entire culture of the St. Lawrence right onto the street and that's the concept."

Clyde Wagner, president and CEO of TO Live, said the design is beautiful.

"During their presentation, they showed what their proposal is for the acoustic hall on the second floor and the whole audience gasped with wonder and started to applaud. And we knew around that time that we had a winner," he said.

Wagner said the design team understood that the centre needs to have an "incredible openness" and to be a kind of "ecosystem" between artists and the public.

Makeover to create 'unique cultural hub,' agencies say

A seven-member jury, made up of people with backgrounds in the fields of culture, planning, urban design, architecture, Indigenous design, and landscape architecture, judged design submissions on March 8. 

The agencies said in the release that the makeover of the centre "is an opportunity to create a unique cultural hub that combines themes of culture and community with technology, accessibility and sustainability."

The new centre will have a main stage theatre, acoustic hall, rehearsal and multi-purpose rooms, artist-in-residence studios, media studios, a child-minding space, front of house public spaces, front of house support, back of house, and outdoor spaces.

According to the city agencies, the winning submission will be presented to city council's executive committee and council itself in the summer. If approved, the team expects to break ground in 2025.

Coun. Chris Moise, who represents Toronto Centre, said in the release that the makeover of the centre is "an incredibly important civic and cultural initiative" for the neighbourhood and city. 

"The winning submission... honours the building's legacy while creating an accessible, uniquely flexible cultural centre with plenty of public spaces that will serve the broad cultural sector, the St. Lawrence community and people from across Toronto, all while strengthening the diverse neighbourhood," Moise said.

With files from Patrick Swadden and Muriel Draaisma