Debut of Bell Lightbox has festgoers buzzing with anticipation

Once a cultural institution grows large enough — take the Toronto Intl. Film Festival group for example — it can foster the Edifice Complex.

That’s when erecting a massive and hopefully architecturally cool building can fulfill the institution’s grand dreams, as well as serve as a physical statement that it has grown up. Edifice Complexes can spur new growth — or they can bury an arts group, if it’s not careful, under a mountain of debt.

What’s seldom noticed about TIFF’s massive new edifice, the TIFF Bell Lightbox that opens its doors on Sept. 12, is that it’s one of the rare film-centric institutional centers to be built in recent years.

While orgs supporting concert halls and museums — such as Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles and the expanded MoMA in New York — commission architectually stunning edifices on a steady basis, film institutions rarely do. Indeed, they more often end up neglected when subsumed under a larger org’s umbrella, such as with LACMA’s film program, and only rarely expand, like the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current construction of two theaters to open in spring of 2011.

The five-story Lightbox, taking up an entire city block in downtown Toronto, represents TIFF’s aim to concentrate the org’s efforts under one roof, according to artistic director Noah Cowan. Carefully devised on every level from its massive $196 million fundraising campaign, spearheaded by TIFF director/CEO Piers Handling (and initially seeded by a combined $22 million gift from the Daniels Corp. and the family of director Ivan Reitman), to its design, overseen by Toronto-based firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, Lightbox is set to be the world’s largest year-round cinema complex, with the annual festival and cinematheque at its core.

“We believe the festival and building will cross-pollinate in several ways,” says Cowan. “The first floor welcomes the visitor with presentations and rotating exhibitions in a dedicated gallery space — a particular obsession of mine — which we launch with a show on Tim Burton organized by MoMA. That’s also where people can eat in a cool new restaurant and bistro.”

In the floors above will be spaces for theaters (floors two and three), workshop and seminar spaces (floor three), the TIFF Film Reference Library and a large area devoted to Canadian film (floor four), with administrative offices on the fifth floor, plus a rooftop space set to open in 2011 and inspired by a grand outdoor staircase in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt.”

But the heart of this particular edifice will be the five cinemas, which fest visitors should note won’t be entirely open in time for the Sept. 12 launch. The rooms range in size from 80 to 550 seats, reflecting Cowan’s programming philosophy striking “a balance between the pure cinephile ambitions of the MoMA and South Bank film programs and the kind of broader audience programs on view at Arclight in Los Angeles and IFC Center in New York.”

Concern had circulated throughout the lengthy construction that TIFF Cinematheque (long renowned as Cinematheque Ontario), headed by James Quandt, would get lost in the Lightbox maze after its move from its old home in the Art Gallery of Ontario, but Cowan says that he views the Cinematheque as “the soul of the organization.”

The new rooms are reportedly already sending shivers of delight through Hollywood-based archivists, since they are designed as boxes-within-boxes, hermetically sealed in an outer concrete shell to silence any outdoor sound and built as glare-free as possible with audiophile-standard sound systems. Cinema 1, for instance, has a booth capable of 70mm, “with our intent to have the power of a classic movie palace in a totally contemporary room,” Cowan notes.

And the content? For starters, Cowan has organized a series of commissions around the theme of “Essential Cinema,” spinning off TIFF’s recently announced list of the top 100 “essential” films (led by Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc”), though he sounds pleased that such commissioned filmmakers as Guy Maddin (with “Hauntings I and II”) and Atom Egoyan (with the Fellini-inspired “8 1/2 Screens”) have produced works that question the very purpose of such a list.

Noting that the opening of Lightbox has pulled the center of gravity for the festival from its traditional home in the Yorkville neighborhood to downtown — with the result that industry and press will generally be lodged and work in a small, eight-block radius — Handling says, “The building will act as a magnet and catalyst for both the international and local film communities. But, really, because of its scale and potential, we don’t fully comprehend what’s going to happen.”

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