TO AN OTTAWA ARISTOCRAT BUILDING YOU A CULTURE PALACE WHAT’S $46 MILLION?
THE THING THAT ALL those
cheeseparing MPs don’t understand, and all the Ottawa taxi drivers who make crude jokes about the place as they drive around Confederation Square, and all the wiseacres like John Diefenbaker, who called it a “federal Taj Mahal,” is that the National Arts Centre is a prototypal building, all $46.4 million of it. Prototypal: Fred Lebensold, the architect, uses that word repeatedly. What he means is that when you set out to build a cultural centre that will be a civic centrepiece and a national ornament for the next century or so, it’s not the same as building somebody’s interchangeable office block. “You see,” Lebensold patiently explained last November to the Commons Broadcasting Committee, “it is exactly the same thing as an airplane. Every time you build a new airplane you build a prototype. It does not mean to say that you have never built an airplane previously, but when you build a new one generally it provides you with a little bit of surprise.” Yes, indeed, a little bit of surprise. Lester Pearson, whose cabinet authorized the project in 1963 for a price that was then estimated unofficially at nine million dollars, hasn’t quite recovered yet from his surprise and wonderment. “It just ... it just got away from us,” he told a friend recently, in wistful tones. For instance, it cost nearly as much just to build the garage as the original estimate for the entire project. When a committee of musicians and acoustical experts decided it would be nice if the hum of the air-conditioners could be kept to below 25 decibels, it cost an extra three million dollars or so to oblige them. When another committee decided to nearly triple the 175,000 feet of floor space to somewhat more than 10 acres, that too was incorporated into the plans while the hole was being excavated. There are 19 sump pumps in the basement to keep the Rideau Canal from seeping into the 900-car underground garage, a pair of sculptured doors in the salon that cost $25,000, back-stage amenities that include 25 dressing rooms, a lounge for musicians and another lounge for actors, six elevator stages that can hoist entire orchestras up and down like the lost continent of Atlantis, and a $75,000 opera curtain that was woven in Japan from fibre-glass and acrylic fibres. The National Arts Centre has everything but broadloomed cages for the elephants in Aida. The Theatre Foundation of Ottawa, a citizens’ group that has been presenting professional and semiprofessional productions in Ottawa for more than a decade, spent $74,000 on three productions during the 1967-68 season; the government spent more than that waterproofing the concrete in the NAC’s hasement.
In the entire
history of cultural subsidy in this country, never have so many millions been spent in the pursuit of one man’s conception of excellence”
But when the National Arts Centre, roughly two years behind schedule, rings up its fibre-glass-acrylic curtain for the first time on June 2, it’s just remotely possible that all that expenditure will begin to seem worthwhile. Architecturally, the building is simply magnificent. Technically, it’s among the two or three most advanced in the world. Culturally, it’s an urgent necessity; Ottawa has spent far too many years watching ballet and symphony performances in the tennisshoe atmosphere of high-school auditoriums. Nationally, it should provide a first-rank showplace for the best productions that Canada’s-'two cultures are capable of producing.
Sociologically it’s quite a story, too. For the Centre, from its original conception to its current state of extravagant excellence to the day - to - day management that will determine whether it becomes a showpiece or a mausoleum, is the responsibility of one man — an Ottawa mandarin and
millionaire ex-diplomat named Gordon Hamilton Southam, a man who turns aside all criticisms of the Centre's $46-million price tag with the impatient, and almost unanswerable comment that “everybody talks price, price, price on this thing. Why doesn’t somebody talk value?” In the entire history of cultural subsidy in this country, never have so many millions been spent in the pursuit of one man’s conception of excellence.
It was Southam who, after his return to Ottawa in 1962 from a threeyear diplomatic stint in Poland, formed the National Capital Arts Alliance, which urged the government to build an arts centre in Ottawa as a Centennial project. It was Southam who took a leave of absence from External to co-ordinate the project after the government approved it in principle in 1963. It was Southam and his friend Maurice Lamontagne, then Secretary of State, who helped draft the National Arts Centre Act, a 1966 act of parliament that established the Centre’s legislative framework. It was Southam who urged, in the delicate phrase of one Public Works Department official, that “pre-eminence should be given to artistic excellence in preference to economic considerations,” and made it stick. And it was Southam who was named directorgeneral in 1967 of the Crown agency that will run the Centre, and who will be most deserving of all the praise and blame it will attract.
In any other Canadian city, the metteur en scène of such a production would have to be a cultural promoter: a born publicist, a dollars-and-cents man. a flatterer of brewers and their wives, a broker of talent and money, a Mavor Moore or a John Fisher. But this was Ottawa; the local Medici happened to be the federal government, not private industry, so something different was required: a reliable person, which in Ottawa means someone whom nobody knows except everybody who matters; a discreet person, which in Ottawa means someone who can negotiate with subtlety and style, preferably without the messy intervention of the press. Above all, the project needed an amateur. someone who could do the job superbly and without apparent effort. There are still undergraduates at Oxford who, around examination time, like to be seen in the Bodleian Library working out backgammon averages. They may study like fiends in the privacy of their own rooms, but the external image must always be one of languor and unconcern. This posture of effortless excellence, which Oxbridge has been teaching for cen-
turies, is highly prized in Ottawa.
Enter Hamilton Southam, a public servant in the aristocratic tradition of the Salstonstalls of Boston or the Masseys of Toronto, and one of the ultimate Ottawa Men. A brief biog:
Antecedents: One of the Southams. Grandson of the founder of the eight-newspaper publishing group, son of Wilson Mills Southam, late publisher of the Ottawa Citizen. Now sits on board of Southam Press Limited, reputedly holds 80,000 shares, worth $4.8 million at current market prices.
Upbringing: Born in Rockcliffe
mansion. Had nanny. Attended Ashbury College, Rockcliffe’s answer to Groton, where (to distinguish him from other clan members attending the same school) he was known as “Southam Three.” Had bit parts in school productions of The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet in which, according to the school magazine, he “spoke well and carried himself finely.”
After Ashbury, five years at University of Toronto’s Trinity College. The nation seethed with breadlines, general strikes and mutterings of revolution, and many undergraduates wore red ties and knew the words to The Internationale. Southam had rooms behind Trinity’s VictorianGothic façade, and says a chief influence on his attitudes in those years was not Marx, not Lenin, not John Reed, but Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield (16941773), whose letters to his son have been a primer on the demeanor and deportment of English gentlemen for nearly two centuries. Of the relations between master and servant, Lord Chesterfield wrote: “God has connected them by reciprocal wants and conveniencys which must, or at least ought to, create that sentiment of universal benevolence or good will which is called humanity.” By this time, as the world descended into chaos, Southam was developing a deep belief in the value of an ordered, structured society. He was spending his summers in Europe at the homes of various relatives, attending deb balls in English country houses and the opera at Covent Garden.
He can still remember a performance of Don Giovanni he attended in 1937 at Glyndebourne, an English country house of old stone and manicured lawns, converted by its owner, John Christie, into one of the most exquisite concert halls in Europe. The performances were as perfect as time and money could make them, the setting was serene and intimate. Before the performance, people would open a picnic hamper beside their Rolls for a supper of gulls’ eggs and champagne. At intermission in the late-summer evenings, couples in black tie and evening dress would stroll on the green lawns, elegant figures in an 18th-century gavotte.
After graduation from Trinity and all those summers in the home counties, it was almost inevitable that Southam should choose to attend Christ Church, the blue-bloodiest college in Oxford. But it was the autumn of 1939. so he spent seven weeks there reading gloomy Russian novels and eating crumpets in the Junior Common room, then joined the British Army as an officer cadet. Eight months later he transferred to the 40th Artillery Battery of the 11th Canadian Army Field Regiment. This also had a certain air of inevitability about it. Southam’s uncle had raised the 40th in 1914 and died at the Somme a few months before Southam was born. The founder’s nephew served with the 40th through campaigns in Italy and Western Europe, was mentioned in dispatches, finished the war as a captain. He still wears an artillery tie.
Career-. Southam spent two years deciding he didn’t want to be a journalist—one year as a reporter for The Times of London fthe Southams and the Astors were family friends) and another year writing editorials for his father’s newspaper in Ottawa, the Citizen. Finally, in 1948, he joined the Department of External Affairs, spent four years at the embassy in Stockholm, another six at home base in Ottawa, three years as chargé d’affaires and ambassador to Warsaw, then home to Ottawa for good.
During his years abroad. Southam spent a lot of time in concert halls and opera houses. He founded the National Capital Arts Alliance, he says, out of a “divine rage” at the conditions under which artists were forced to perform in the capital of one of the world’s richest nations. Visiting attractions usually perform at one of the local high schools or at the Capitol Theatre on Bank Street, a cinema which is said to sell excellent popcorn. When l’Orchestre de Paris, one of the world's great concert aggregations, performed there last year. 10 musicians had to sit offstage.
Southam’s divine rage concerning cultural amenities is only one of the things that set him apart from his fellow Ottawans. For a man of 52 who was born, raised and has worked there for years, he has a surprising reputation for aloofness. Few people on the city’s official-cultural circuit profess to know him well, and fewer still claim to be his friends. “He’s
very serious,” says one close observer of the Ottawa scene. “Sort of an elegant man — so rarefied in his tastes and attitudes that ordinary people would have trouble communicating with him.” Southam is not an easy man to know. Stories circulate about him: the Picasso he bought which, according to Picasso himself, is a fake. There was also a certain amount of comment around Rockcliffe in 1967 when Southam divorced Jacquie, his wife of 27 years, and married the Norwegian ex-wife of a French diplomat, a woman nearly half his age.
You get the impression that he’d be at home in any civilized century. He can still quote Lord Chesterfield at length, he salts his conversation endlessly with French mots (for he is passionately bilingual), he can tootle a very acceptable roundelay on a tenor recorder. He is frankly horrified by the gaucheries of a hyper-technological age, and he affects a well-bred indifference to economics (“The gross national . . . what do you call it?"). The people he likes best are artists, crazy people, life-enhancers. It is as plausible to imagine him at the court of an Esterhazy or at the Congress of Vienna as it is his having lunch at the Rideau Club. “What makes Hamilton so seductive.” says his new wife, Gro. “is that he has all the centuries he's assimilated on one foot, and everything contemporary on the other.”
This, then, is the sensibility that created the grandest, costliest cultural monument in Canadian history, and it raises an awkward question. Granted. Canada needs to establish a cultural identity — but is the NAC likely to achieve anything vital, unique and indigenous under a director-general who is, in effect, an 18th-century European aristocrat?
“I'm sorry,” Southam replies, “but if you're talking artistic excellence, you’re talking Elizabethan England, you’re talking Versailles — almost anything of lasting value has been the product of cultivated minorities.”
The cultivated minority that created the Arts Centre included Southam, architect Peter Lebensold — who also designed Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre and the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in Montreal’s Place des Arts — plus four advisory committees of artists, impressarios, musicians and theatrical experts, people such as Zubin Mehta, John Hirsch, Leon Major, Celia Franca and Bert Binning. Their assignment was to pool their expertise to design the best building possible. There was little haggling over costs.
The result is at least three times as much theatre as Ottawa needs now or in the immediate future. But Southam
insists he’s building not just for this century but for the next as well; and the building is an architectural and technical triumph. Everything that the world's fussiest performers could think to include has been included, in much the same way as the navy's $53-million hydrofoil (another federal project whose cost grandly exceeded initial estimates) incorporates all the latest defense technology. “There’s no way this building will be obsolete in 10 years. They’ve thought of everything,” the house manager boasts, exactly as though he were talking about the CF-105. Indeed, some parts of the building look like a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are two auxiliary generators in the basement (Rolls-Royce, naturally) standing by in case of power failures. There is a vast control console that looks like HAL the computer and, with its blinking lights, gauges and push buttons, monitors everything in the building from the temperature in the opera house to the carbon-monoxide level in the garage.
From the air, the Centre looks like a random assortment of hat boxes. Everything is in hexagons, because the Rideau Canal makes a natural 60-degree angle with Elgin Street. The effect is sculptured and stunning, but the extra expense must have been horrendous; everything from acoustic tile to baseboards had to be custom-cut to accommodate Lebensold’s conception. The Centre consists of a 2,300-seat opera house, an 800-seat theatre, a 300-seat studio for small experimental productions, and a salon for formal receptions and chamber-music concerts, all connected by a single rambling lobby. There will be six bars, a restaurant, a string of boutiques, and $500,000 worth of commissioned art objects, including a tapestry woven in France for $25.000. Perhaps the grandest tribute came from an outof-town visitor who said. “When you’re inside this place, you can almost forget you’re in Ottawa.”
Which raises still another awkward question: how on earth, in a place like Ottawa, are they going to fill three theatres? The short answer is that the NAC doesn’t plan to. Operations director Bruce Corder expects the three theatres will be dark less than half the time. Southam doesn’t expect to see optimum use for about three years. Both are fond of quoting statistics to the effect that Ottawa has the best-educated and very nearly the best-paid population in the country, a market of 500.000 permanent residents and 600,000 visitors a year.
The core of the Centre’s programming will he its resident attractions.
The Stratford Theatre Company will use the Centre as its home base during the winters. A resident French company called Le Capricorne is also being formed, and the Centre is developing a resident 45-piece orchestra under Canadian-born Mario Bernardi, who left his post as musical director of London’s Sadler's Wells Opera to join the NAC. Bernardi is one of a full-time staff roster that is expected to reach about 70 when the Centre is in full operation. Many of them are former Expo 67 employees, indicating that it may now be possible to build a lifetime career in the subsidized-culture business.
Southam thinks the Centre will need $2.5 million a year in federal subsidies, and says he has a guarantee for this amount, rising by roughly five percent each year. The two-week opening festival alone (with stock attractions that include the National Ballet, the Montreal Symphony and Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde) is budgeted for a $500,000 deficit. Already there have been murmurs that the NAC. at its current rate of munificence, could duplicate the grisly experience of Atlanta, Georgia, where the new cultural centre closed after several months because of a lack of operating funds.
At this stage, no one knows how it will turn out. Stratford’s director. John Hirsch, is concerned that the NAC could become an exclusively middle-class bauble; at a private dinner at the Rideau Club to mark the signing of the contract between Stratford and the NAC, he delivered a sock-it-to-’em speech to this effect. It was not well received by the cultural benefactors who heard it. Actorbroadcaster Bruno Gerussi’s comment is succinct: “A black-tie place. No balls. No guts.” An Ottawa insurance man named John McGuire, however, is enchanted. He owns five tuxedos, including one in deep-maroon brocade, and he’s founded a society dedicated to encouraging Ottawans to dress for the theatre. The Centre, he feels, will advance his cause.
“Look,” says John Hirsch, “let’s indulge in a little reality-therapy. Maybe it's too much theatre and maybe there are smarter ways of spending all that money. But the point is, the Centre is there. So what are we going to do with it?”
Only time, and G. Hamilton Southam, can tell. In the meantime, there’s no point in whining about the cost — which, on a per-square-foot basis, is considerably less than comparable centres in the U.S. Today he’s regarded as a federal spendthrift. Tomorrow he’ll be remembered, gratefully, as a visionary. □