24/7 on the 401

It may seem an unlikely orientation for a student centre to face a portion of the Trans-Canada highway–the 401–that cuts across the top of Toronto like a 24-hour buzz-saw. But in spite of the marginal urban hurly-burly that characterizes the site–the highway and parking lots to the north, more parking lots to the west and other campus buildings to the south–the Student Centre at Centennial College by Architects Kongats Phillips (recently restructured as Kongats Architects) engenders a communal, convivial atmosphere.

The building’s exterior adopts a different expression in response to its various orientations. The north elevation addresses the 401 with a tough zinc wall that acts as a sort of shield in relation to the expressway and tempers the natural light coming into the games arcade and pool hall inside. The metal and glass butt into a new brick firewall to the east that separates the new building from an existing gymnasium, and prominent red lettering identifies the Student Centre to passing traffic. At the building’s west end, integrally-coloured concrete columns support a projecting second-floor brick-clad volume that houses the student and alumni associations’ offices, where a horizontal strip of operable windows establish a smaller order within a large expanse of glazing. The south elevation, which faces another campus building, consists of double-height blue-tinted glazing punctuated by aluminium mullions with vertical emphasis. The expanse of glass is partly shaded by a cantilevered metal brise-soleil that filters the light entering the main events hall.

Inside, the building is organized in layers, progressing from west to east. At the ground level the west end is dedicated to a large glazed lounge and a circulation spine that traverses the entire width of the building. Next, a band of retail spaces serves to separate the circulation space from the games arcade, the caf, and the main events hall, and the easternmost band is dedicated to service spaces such as washrooms, lockers and a commercial kitchen.

Stacked linear stairs provide access to a partial basement that houses a computer lab which looks onto a sloping glass verge, and up to the second floor. Spatial layering, again, organizes the upper level. Student and alumni offices occupy the area west of the main circulation spine, while to the east, a glazed band containing a board room and study room overlook a landscaped roof garden. To the east of the garden are a series of club rooms, which benefit from the ventilation and daylight streaming in from its full-height glazing, and open onto a perimeter corridor that offers views into the adjacent Del Gymnasium. Red vinyl gym-mats cushion the chaise-longue-styled box-seats that line the hallway underneath the gym windows. At the north and south ends of the garden, washrooms and a lounge project over the games room and the main events space, respectively, the latter providing students with a view of the comings and goings in the main event hall and a chance to watch its big-screen television.

Exposed concrete is an omnipresent interior finish, a wise selection for a high-traffic building such as this. The spaces are punctuated with exposed integrally-coloured concrete columns, and cast-in-place coloured concrete floor slabs are used throughout. A variety of other materials and forms helps animate the building: the bar in the main events hall is made of monolithic solid surface, and lit from above by luminous white globes. The linear stair down to the computer lab is lined with wood, and the lounges are furnished with architect-designed easy chairs, sofas and interlocking peanut-shaped tables. Tectum–resembling shiny, honey-soaked vermicelli–provides a pleasant alternative to standard acoustic ceiling tile. The service core that houses the kitchen and first floor washrooms, and the washrooms on the second floor, are identifiably enveloped with mosaic glass tile at the corridor. Polycarbonate panels are used as spatial separators, providing translucency but restricting transparency.

By day, the Student Centre’s contrapuntal materiality and interconnected spaces reflect the busy dynamism of student life, while at night the illumination from within is propelled outward through the generous glazing and the north elevation’s metallic glint. As such, the busy, multifaceted nature of student life is made explicit and inviting–24 hours a day, seven days a week. NM

Centennial College Student Centre, Toronto, Ontario.

Architects Kongats Phillips

Centennial College Student Centre, Toronto, Ontario.

Architects Kongats Phillips

Client: Centennial College Student Association Inc.

Architect team: Alar Kongats (principal-in-charge and project designer), Tim Lee (project co-ordinator), Tina Hubel, Huay Wee, Donald Weber, Dede Dorsey, Donna Diakun, Stephen Phillips, Phillip Toms, David Down, Dieter Janssen

Structural: Halsall Associates Ltd.

Mechanical/Electrical: Crossey Engineering Ltd.

Landscape: Gunta Mackars Landscape Architecture

Geotechnical: AGRA Earth & Environmental Ltd.

Interiors: Architects Kongats Phillips (Kongats Architects)

Contractor: Pre-Eng Contracting Ltd.

Area: 3,200 m2

Budget: $8 million

Completion: May 2001

Photographers: Ben Rahn/Design Archive unless noted