Both individually and through joint ventures, Charles Khabouth & Jim Kambourakis have been at the forefront of downtown Toronto’s nightclub and entertainment scene for the best part of 23 years. The sum of their creative abilities includes such acclaimed venues as, Tonic (mondo*dr mar/apr 2000), Guvernment, This is London and most notably Orchid – the club that pretty much kicked off the Toronto club scene and instigated the creation of a host of cutting edge imitators. For their latest project however, the duo have looked further afield to the Honeymoon Capital™ of Niagara Falls.
Lying on the Canadian-US border, 1.5 hours from Toronto, the town plays host to around twelve million tourists each year, drawn by the spectacle of the Niagara River as it cascades a fifth of the world’s fresh water between the Great Lakes of Erie and Ontario. Though bars are plentiful, there has until recently been no major club scene in the town. With the opening of the new Fallsview Casino Resort, Khabouth and Kambourakis saw an opportunity to change all that and set about designing new venue Dragonfly.
With the help of Munge//Leung Design Associates and Toronto based Apex Sound & Lighting, the pair have created an incredible club that takes inspiration from Beijing’s ancient Forbidden City. Guests enter through 14-foot iron-clad doors where a dignified hallway takes them straight to the main bar where a row of Qin terracotta soldiers stand guard over the spirits and mixers.
Further towards the rear of the club is a second circular bar surrounded by a collection of luxurious red booths. Continuing the oriental theme, the bar is strung with 150 miniature lanterns. Fed by fibre optic cables and a concealed colour wheel, these slowly pulse through a myriad of subtle colour changes.
Back across the dancefloor, past a top of the line DJ booth, lies the VIP area. Situated on a raised platform above the club’s main dance floor, this space offers patrons the choice of staying close to the action or retreating to the luxury of one of nine private booths. For those with the cash and connections, a VVIP booth in the very corner of the club, seats twelve.
The slick interior and high quality finish disguises a challenging installation, as Kambourakis explains: “When we took the place over we had to do a sound check. We ran the sound system at around 120dB and at that level, almost a third of the casino upstairs started to vibrate”. The casino owners were understandably concerned and as a result the club underwent a complex muffling process – creating a self-contained acoustical box to prevent noise seeping into the rest of the resort. Sidewalls eight inches thick, each containing three layers of drywall, were built in to rooms perimeter and a flexible floating ceiling was suspended over the entire space to absorb any noise heading upwards. The cost to the club was a ten-foot loss of headroom and a significant reduction in the ceiling’s load-bearing capacity. It meant the pair had to get creative when coming up with the main lighting system and inadvertently led to one of the clubs most impressive elements – the LED ceiling. “We were having a real hard time hanging fixtures and making a decision on what we were going to buy” remembers Kambourakis. “At LDI ‘05 we just kept looking and looking for efficient, effective lighting – and that’s when we decided on Color Kinetics. It’s basically a big TV on the ceiling and you can play all kinds of images, patterns, branding and logos in pretty much any colour you want.”
Kambourakis sees it as modern day digital twist on the multicoloured disco floors of old and an evolution of the ‘liquid ceiling’ concept he introduced back in 2000, when he suspended 72 TV monitors above the dancefloor in Tonic. Controlled by a digital server and a LANdesk system manager, files can be easily uploaded, converted and fed via DMX to the 80 translucent iColorFlex 50 node RGB strips that make up this central light feature.
Impressive though it is, the ceiling has not replaced moving head luminaires completely. “The one thing with LEDs is they doesn’t have that concentrated light, so you still need the pinspots, moving heads, trackspots etc.” With this in mind, the team supplemented the ceiling feature with twelve High End Studiospots, allowing perfomers to weave the perfect mix of audio and visuals. “Whilst the DJ plays the music, the lighting guy paints an image of what’s going on – and video is definitely becoming a big part of this,” Kambourakis continues. “If you notice, some of the big DJs like Sander Kleinburg and Tiesto are now producing their own videos, requesting DVJs and playing them with their music, so a combination of video and light is definitely the way of the future.”
Balancing safe construction and acceptable noise reduction, with essential aesthetic concerns – such as ensuring sightlines were kept clear – required a 16-month construction period and a $4.3 million pricetag: a sizeable investment for a club of just 12,000 sq feet. Popular opinion, however, suggests the effort and cost has all been worthwhile. “Everyone that’s been there says this is one of our best clubs,” says Kambourakis. “Details-wise everyone says it’s beautiful and that, if it was in Vegas, it would out-do most of the clubs there.”
With sound insulation safely in place, the Dragonfly team were free to experiment with the audio design. “We went for JBL because it was just something we wanted to try. Usually I’m an EAW fanatic; This is London, Orchid and Tonic were all KF650 & 850 rigs. We wanted to try something fresher and we’re very pleased with the result,” says Kambourakis. The use of Bassmax for the subs was also something of a find. “We weren’t too familiar with them, but the sound pressure coming out of these boxes is pretty good, based on the square footage we were looking at. Originally, that room should have had twelve 18s in there, but right now its running on just eight 18s based on that box. It’s really doing well.”
Since opening at the end of 2007, the club has proved hugely popular with locals and tourists alike; a testament to the owners’ pioneering spirit. The ties both have developed with booking agents over the last two decades enable them to bring big name DJs like Tiesto and Oakenfold to this latest venture. Kambourakis predicts that the Niagara Falls club scene is set to take off over the next five years and, with Dragonfly as the catalysts, you are inclined to believe him.