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Qaggiavuut reaches design phase

Qaggiavuut's dream of a performance centre for the territory is one step closer to reality with the addition of a world-class architecture firm to the team.

Diamond Schmitt Architects' Mehdi Ghiyaei, left, Qaggiavuut's project manager and digital designer Jamie Griffiths, Government of Nunavut heritage division director Alex Stubbing, and Diamond Schmitt Architects principal architect Donald Schmitt participate in an initial consultation that will lead to a conceptual design of a performance centre for Nunavut. Michele LeTourneau/NNSL photo

Without a design and projected costs, Qaggiavuut has been unable to actively pursue funding, the executive director Ellen Hamilton explained.

"We just couldn't afford the design," said Hamilton, adding that over the past eight years the organization has consulted with artists across the territory on what kind of performance centre is needed.

Hamilton explained funding is not available for initial design efforts.

Diamond Schmitt Architects, the firm responsible for the National Arts Centre’s $110.5-million upgrade and several other high-profile and community art centres internationally, has stepped up to provide Qaggiavuut what's its missing to move forward – as a donation.

Principal architect Donald Schmitt and colleague Mehdi Ghiyaei spent September 25 and 26 in Iqaluit conducting their own in-person consultations.

Schmitt estimates a conceptual design, based on his firm's rates, is worth about $150,000 of effort. That includes programming, developing designs, developing drawings, presenting designs and modifying the designs.

"Really sort of developing it from a technology point of view, an engineering point of view, and a design point of view at the conceptual level, the initial stages of a project," said Schmitt.

And as Ghiyaei noted, a design provides a tool to pitch the idea.

"It makes it a bit more real," he said.

Schmitt has a few reasons to donate the firm's time and effort.

"It's a recognition that projects happen because individuals take the initiative to move the bar down the line," he said.

"We've been talking about feasibility studies and business cases (during this two-day consultation). Those don't make projects happen. Projects happen because they are well-conceived, there's a big community need, and individuals with expertise get behind the project."

Schmitt said the National Arts Centre asked the firm to get involved because it's an important project.

"We recognize the importance of giving support to Inuit culture is not only important nationally from the cultural conversation but it's also important just in terms of the issues of poverty and the kind of social issues which are really present in Northern communities, of people being disconnected from their culture, whether there's residential school, or the colonialism of the last 50 and more years," he said.

"And recognition that culture is probably one of the most effective tools to reconnect and give the broader community meaning and purpose and a place and understanding of heritage."

His third reason: "We love the conversations with artists and the creative community we've been having the last few days. It's why we can be architects doing many types of buildings, shopping centres and condominiums. But one of the things we love is the creative community. I think we can contribute, so there's a sense of we're able to and we get pleasure out of it."

Why a performance centre?

There's been a lot of talk around Iqaluit about a proposed convention centre and a proposed heritage centre, either of which or both of which could have a stage or auditorium. People who came to discussions at the Qaggiavuut meetings talked about how a room is not just a box, but an instrument. The performing arts centre, as envisioned by Qaggiavuut, is not just a stage, but a complex mix of spaces to create new shows, train artists and technicians, offer classes for children and youth – all steeped in Inuit cultural practices.

And technically, as Ghiyaei explains, these stages and spaces are not the same.

"We've been involved in a lot of cultural facilities and also a lot of performing arts centres. The main difference is that in performing arts centres, everything revolves around producing art and presenting art," he said.

As interested parties came and went during the two days, and as the architects met with community members and artists, as well as Inuit organizations, Iqaluit's mayor, and other groups, the vision of a Nunavut performance centre was explored.

Acoustics, for example, were discussed – whether the performance hall would require electronic amplification or be built to naturally amplify voice and instruments. Artists favoured non-electric amplification, especially for storytelling and throatsinging, and Schmitt said that's entirely possible.

"The opera house in Toronto, which has 2000 seats, is completely unamplified. An opera singer can reach every one of those 2000 people," he said. "The acoustic architecture of the room is fundamental to make that happen."

Discussion also involved sprung floors for dancers, incorporating the landscape into the design and activities in the building, the sorts of teaching space needed, a performance space that could adjust to audience size – the list goes on.

Some of the more intense conversations revolved around how health and wellness are singularly connected to self-expression, and the space needed for Inuit to do just that.

"We have an incredible opportunity to do something that's never been done," Hamilton said, adding the performing arts centre could be a beacon for the world. Schmitt agrees.