On Friday, September 18th, students at Brock University's Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts went about their Friday classes, late afternoon light spilling in through the northern windows as the painters and sculptors worked. In the darker theaters and studios, acting and dance classes were underway. Outside, a crowd of hundreds gathered for the official opening of a school already in session, with a series of speeches giving voice to a thoughtful, optimistic vision of St. Catharines' future that seemed to emanate from the crowd itself.
The Mayor, the Dean, and the Chancellor joined Provincial politicians in celebrating the new school, which was made possible by educational infrastructure spending and an initial, transformative, $15 million donation from Marilyn I. Walker (below), the textile artist for whom the school is named. The city's renewal, its metamorphosis from a post-industrial town into a nascent centre of the arts, thematically linked the speeches, all of which expressed enthusiasm for a more vibrant and prosperous future.
Yet, past the procession of suits and ties and speeches—so often accompanied by a vague cynicism in Toronto—the quotidian, unsexy proof of Saint Catharines' new dynamism and energy was already alive in the school in the Twelve Mile Creek valley, and in the city above it. For the students and faculty, the semester was underway. For the city, a new influx of pedestrians breathed commercial activity and new vibrancy into the streets.
With the main campus of Brock University located some 8 kilometres away from Downtown Saint Catharines, the city and the school have long existed in separate cultural and economic spheres. For most residents of Saint Catharines, the geographically displaced "college on the hill" was detached from local life, while students themselves rarely spent significant time away from campus.
Now, the new Diamond Schmitt Architects-designed School of Fine and Performing Arts is bringing the school into direct contact with the city, as the adjoining FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre—the soon-to-open new home of the Niagara Symphony Orchestra—creates a multi-purpose venue to act as a vital link between the public and the university.
The main school building is housed in the restored and significantly expanded Canada Hair Cloth building, situated directly beneath Saint Paul Street in the heart of Downtown. The former factory's open floor plan, full of large windows and high ceilings, makes for ideal studio spaces. The open valley land surrounding the abandoned building, meanwhile, allowed for a spacious new expansion, which houses offices, studios, theatres, an art gallery, and classrooms, together with the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.
According to Brock's President and Vice-Chancellor Jack Lightstone, the new school marks a "change in how we see ourselves as an institution" for the university. Seeking to bring new vibrancy and economic activity to the city while creating new cultural ties. Lighstone describes a new "symbiotic relationship" between the city and the school, where the mutual benefits of cultural growth are the main driving force for a shared future.
Creating the open studio spaces involved replacing the columns that supported the roof with an advanced truss system created by Toronto's Blackwell Structural Engineers (above). To facilitate contact between the students and the city, Diamond Schmitt specifically designed the school without a cafeteria or fast food outlets, meaning that students will be patronizing downtown St. Catharines businesses a short walk up the hill on Saint Paul Street, supporting the local economy.
The design of the school recognizes the city's industrial past through a meticulously preserved heritage building, but also infuses the older architecture with a 21st century aesthetic. This fusion of heritage preservation with contemporary design and cutting-edge engineering, is, according to Lightstone, "symbolic of St. Catharines itself."
Like the building, the city now finds itself at a crossroads between an industrial past and a more culturally oriented future. A future that is now finally, definitively becoming realized following decades of stagnation cruelly punctuated by windows of false hope.
For all the guileless joy and enthusiasm that greeted the new building, Dr. Lightstone reminded us that bricks and mortar themselves are not what was celebrated. "The building itself is meaningless," he tells us, pausing, "it is only an instrument, a tool. And, like any instrument, what matters is how you play it." So what drew the crowds was not the instrument, but rather its music, a nascent social and cultural cadence generated by residents and students together. On that day, at least, you could hear it everywhere.