City have an Arts Complex?
The term complex indicates an arts facility designed
to accommodate theatre, dance and musical events for
the entertainment of Canadian citizens -- a kind of
arts shopping mall, a cement fountain spewing culture
in all directions.
However, the word might also be applied to these structures
in the Freudian sense -- as in, Stay away from me, I
have an arts complex! -- referring to a pathological
fear of the arts brought on by these malignant growths,
together with the urge to bury an entire area of cultural
activity in the deep unconscious.
As an architectural expression, the Canadian arts complex
is an expression of madness.
Think of the word theatre, and what do you see? Bright
lights; a garish sign advertising the name of the theatre
and the title on offer; an overhang to shelter patrons
on the sidewalk; a box office in plain view. For me
at least, that is what comes to mind.
Now envisage the entrance to the National Arts Centre
in Ottawa -- or rather, try and find it. I can't. I
have performed for paying audiences at the NAC intermittently
for 25 years, and I've never been able to figure out
how they get in. No sign. No lights. No visible box
office. To a stranger, the NAC might be the American
Embassy, where every visitor is a potential terrorist.
The entrance to a building says a lot about the intentions
of its architect, and here the message is that what
happens inside is for the "in" crowd -- those
who know how to get in. The front door of the NAC, like
that of an after-hours club, is not an entrance but
a screen, a way of filtering out the wrong sort of people.
The NAC is not as popular with the public as its staff
would like, because it was never designed to be. Knowing
this, would you want to be their publicist? Think it
might give you an arts complex?
The Confederation Centre in Charlottetown goes a step
further. Not only is the front door almost as difficult
to find, in Charlottetown the entrance goes underground.
It's as if you're boarding the subway. Then, having
descended, the patron climbs back up, into the theatre
-- like a beaver, surfacing inside its twig hut in the
middle of a cement pond.
National symbolism? You decide. Perhaps the Confederation
Centre's entrance is all about depth -- the need to
burrow for the truth. Except that they're showing Anne
of Green Gables to Japanese tourists, who might be forgiven
if they think the edifice doubles as a bomb shelter.
Which is no laughing matter -- in fact, it could be
enough to give them an arts complex.
Designers of the Manitoba Theatre Centre found a novel
way to induce neurosis in the arts, both on- and off-stage.
It has to do with the word stage. I don't know about
you, but for me the word evokes a platform, on which
someone performs, for an audience seated in front of
In Winnipeg, this assumption would be in error. At MTC,
only audiences in front sit in front of the stage; as
the seats go back, they veer sharply left in a kind
of dogleg. As well, the audience is divided into arbitrary
sections by a series of cement walls, waist high. Meanwhile,
backstage, the dressing-room walls aren't really walls
as such, for they stop two feet from the ceiling. (More
than one MTC production has been doomed by an injudicious
comment in the supposed privacy of a dressing room.)
A theatre in which the audience can't get together,
and the performers can't be alone. If that doesn't give
you an arts complex, nothing will.
Nothing like a strange location to make you paranoid.
Say the words concert hall and I, for one, envisage
something downtown, on a well-frequented, well-lit street
with a steady stream of traffic swishing back and forth
late at night.
That image in no way describes the Queen Elizabeth complex,
located in the shadow of the post office (a blank wall
with loading bays), in front of a vast parking lot that
used to be the Vancouver Bus Station. Translation: an
institution built to house a profession of transient
postal workers, in a section of town where, if you don't
go home right after the show, an artist might pick your
pocket and take the bus to Kamloops. As for signage,
the QET could be a convention centre, a sports arena
or a municipal zoo, but a stranger to the city would
never anticipate concerts and plays.
Here lies the terrible irony of what transpired the
last time government decided to do something for the
performing arts: The most conspicuous result was a series
of perverse buildings, designed by non-artists with
a theory, which actually impede what the arts are supposed
to do. Forty years later, these dead weights still lie
upon us, as they will 40 years hence. The arts asked
for health care, they gave us a tumour. The public asked
for culture, they gave us a complex