The Little Hall That Could
In theory, it really shouldn't work. A residential street in a central neighbourhood is not generally the sort of place that you would expect a performance hall to be built. But then, Festival Hall is not your standard venue.
Surrounded by modest bungalows and quaint cottages on a tree-lined street in Inglewood, the 225 seat performance space and business office of the Calgary Folk Music Festival is unobtrusive amongst its residential neighbours. From the outside, the simple square structure is a study in minimalism with understated aesthetics and a restrained palette. To the passerby there is nothing that screams "concert venue" - no garish neon, no grand balustrades or flying buttresses, not even a parking lot to set the humble hall apart from its surrounding neighbours.
"The buildings in Inglewood are frank and purposeful and architecturally modest. It was important that Festival Hall enhances rather than changes this valued quality in the community," says architect Peter Cardew, who brought his subtle but dramatic design philosophy to the plans. "A good building, like a good friend, respects rather than dominates the neighbourhood."
Within the spare and subtle exterior lies a 4000 sq. ft. near-LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) interior that marries the warmth and history of reclaimed wood with the industrial cool of high end concrete. Inside the foyer on the main floor, a handsome drink rail, etched with donor names and crafted from wood salvaged from a Safeway store in Manitoba, runs the length of the concrete wall. A handcrafted table fashioned from reclaimed wood from a church in Inglewood, sits beneath. Across the foyer, gracing the box office/concession are a series of colourful bird woodcuts, created by local artist Lisa Brawn. Cut from 100 year old Douglas fir beams that were salvaged from the old Alberta Block downtown, the woodcuts reference the wild birds that inhabit the nearby Inglewood Bird Sanctuary and Prince's Island. "The backgrounds are repeating patterns of local flora," explains the artist, "and there are subtle concentric lines in the background that look like vibrations from sound waves."
The foyer's ceiling slopes downward as it enters the performance space, drawing you past the massive pivoting door and into the warmth of articulated maple panels and magnificent ceiling trusses, constructed using century-old reclaimed timber from an abandoned mill in Washington state. The cross-hatched trusses of old-growth timber, which Cardew likens to the functional structures of agricultural buildings where barn dances were held, soften the industrial edge and evoke a timeless quality. A catwalk runs the perimeter of the hall, allowing access to lighting and acoustic functions, eliminating the need for ladders. Natural light from high windows pours in and filters through the trusses' trapezoidal arches.
A small outdoor space off the catwalk leads back to the folk festival offices that face the street and occupy the second and third floors. A two-storey bank of windows dominates the back wall, filling the open-concept office with light. Visitors arriving up the stairs or stepping off the small elevator are greeted at a uniquely crafted reception desk, hewn from reclaimed wood and slate by local craftsman Warren Hall.
Careful configuration of hall and office space has allowed Festival Hall to derive maximum use from the footprint it occupies on its double-wide city lot. "There isn't a square inch of space that isn't used for something," says Jon Lovink, Festival Hall's Executive Director. Fitting in, respecting the neighbourhood, has been a critical goal for Festival Hall since its inception, and although Festival Hall looks as though it has always been part of the streetscape of 10th Avenue, there were many times in that journey from dream to bricks and mortar reality when it all could have fallen apart.
The dream began eight years ago, when the Folk Festival Society Board of Directors began to flirt with the idea of a permanent home. The ramshackle rented space on Memorial Drive, although blessed with a bohemian vibe, was saddled with the limitations of being on the second floor of an aging building. A very long steep set of stairs meant that the offices were not accessible for everyone and that moving boxes of festival merchandise and volunteer shirts was sweaty, potentially hazardous, labour. More importantly, members of the folk festival audience who gathered every July on Prince's Island had long been saying that four days a year was simply not enough, that they wished the festival could last the entire year. The idea of constructing a multi-purpose facility that would extend the festival vibe into year-round programming, serve as an arts and music centre for the greater community, and house the offices of the Calgary Folk Music Festival, was born.
"In our first discussions with Gregg Ferguson, Chair of the Festival board at the time, we were intrigued by the idea of a hall that, rather than being specifically for music, could be flexible enough to accommodate diverse social and cultural activities," recounts Peter Cardew. "This was typical of earlier community halls and in contrast to the designs constructed today that are confined to highly specific venues."
The search for the right design and the right location did not happen overnight. "We looked at a handful of historic small cultural halls around the world which have become sought-after venues because of their intimate size, non-amplified acoustics and flexible plan that allows them to react to evolving needs," explains Cardew. Ultimately, the increasingly vibrant cultural scene and central location of Inglewood seemed the perfect fit for a small versatile performance space.
The decision to build Festival Hall signalled a cultural shift for the Folk Festival Society, according to Jon Lovink. "Its not easy for a not-for-profit organization to build a hall," he maintains. "It affects how a not-for-profit sees itself." Where previously the board of directors and folk festival staff had concentrated on running an annual festival, they now found themselves lobbying, pouring over architectural drawings, fundraising and trying to translate vision into reality.
Shortly after Lovink stepped down from the board to take on the role of Executive Director of the Festival Hall project, an offer of substantial funding (potentially one third of the project's cost) came in from the federal government. In an effort to stimulate a flagging economy, the government was prepared to invest in infrastructure projects that were shovel-ready.
While a condition of the federal funding was that the money be spent within a specified timeframe, the total funds that had been raised toward the project were still well short of the point where the board felt confident to commit. With the risk of losing that infrastructure funding hanging like the sword of Damocles, the board then lobbied the City of Calgary. A 2007 Calgary Arts Development report had pinpointed a real shortage of small performance spaces within Calgary. Not only was Festival Hall precisely the sort of arts space that was so desperately needed, the festival itself had been tremendously successful for thirty years. "When you have a good reputation, a solid organization, it's a lot easier to request funds for something that's never been built before," explains Lovink. "It opens doors." The $2 million that the city ultimately awarded toward the Festival Hall project was the tipping point that allowed contracts to be signed and construction to finally begin.
Upon breaking ground in the spring of 2010, however, construction was immediately halted when groundwater rushed into the hole "We dug into a river," laughs Lovink. "We had done a lot of geological studies but we hadn't anticipated just how much water might be down there." Project manager Darrell MacLachlan explains that it took a series of sump pumps and a three-stage filtration system to remove the water. An extensive in-ground weeping tile system was installed, along with a waterproofing membrane around the perimeter of the foundation. The concrete of the foundation itself was enhanced with an additive which reacts to create a water impermeable barrier when it comes into contact with moisture.
The ensuing winter of 2010/2011 was plagued with cold snaps that brought construction to a halt for several weeks. But while the cold weather delayed all construction projects in the city, the unique nature of Festival Hall brought some equally unique challenges that were specific to its build. Lying lot-line to lot-line, Festival Hall covers essentially the entire property, which does not leave a lot of room to manoeuvre equipment and material. "It creates some structural challenges when you build with block walls," says MacLachlan. "We had to build an internal wind bracing system during construction to ensure that the walls stayed up." Bringing in the trusses, to assemble into the hall's iconic barn-dance-evoking ceiling, involved some fancy crane work. Because of the power lines at the rear of the property, the trusses - which were fabricated as panel sections in Vancouver - had to be lifted up over the building from the front and gently lowered to the lower level of the hall at the back.
Part of the commitment made to the city, and part of the culture of the folk festival itself, was that Festival Hall be an environmentally sustainable building. The building's unique geothermal passive heating and cooling system, the first of its kind in Calgary, draws outside air in from the front of the building and down a shaft into a deep pit. Gradually inclined earth tubes that run from the front of the building and back again, carry the air to mechanical rooms in the basement. Because of the stable temperature of the earth at that depth, cold outdoor air is warmed as it passes through the tubes in winter while hot outdoor air is cooled in summer. By the time air reaches the air handling units, it has already been tempered and requires far less heating or cooling. "We don't actually have any air conditioning on the units," MacLachlan points out.
Considering the two-storey bank of south-facing windows in the office area, the absence of air conditioning in Festival Hall is even more impressive. As MacLachlan explains, the windows are triple-glazed with low-E coating to fight thermal gain. "The windows themselves also contain a filament product (Okalux) that diffuses direct sunlight, so you still get a lot of the sense of the light, but not direct light itself."
It was relatively late in the design process that a sound consultant was brought in. While, as Jon Lovink admits, that added substantial unanticipated costs, the impact on the largely acoustic space is enormous. Eight maple panelled sliding doors line the walls of Festival Hall. Each door is articulated off a parallel running track, creating a series of acoustic baffles. Like tuning a guitar, the doors can be tweaked to achieve acoustic perfection.
The massive pivoting door that separates the performance space from the foyer is, apart from its impressive size, a deceptively simple looking structure. Constructed of steel hollow structural sections, known for strength to weight ratio and resistance to torsion, the custom built door provides complete soundproofing when closed and funnels visitors into the hall when open. A single pivot point allows it to be easily moved by one person, yet the custom designed connecting and rotating devices are, in Darrell MacLachlan's opinion, "the really cool part that nobody will ever see". The sentiment is true of Festival Hall itself - deceptively simple with an understated elegance on the outside, and a really cool part that nobody will ever see lying beneath.
The simple elegance that is Festival Hall embraces the original dream of the humble hall, a place for community to gather. Even before completion, the first public event - a TEDx talk - was held amidst the ladders and stacks of drywall. Now that the sawdust has all been swept up and the boxes have been unpacked, the Calgary Folk Music Festival is a nomad no more. Festival Hall has come home.
- Barbara Bruederlin