Boundary Condition

Project Wellesley Community Centre, Wellesley Early Learning Centre and Toronto Public Library, St. Jamestown Branch, Toronto, Ontario

Architects Maclennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects and Zas Architects in Joint Venture

Text Colin Ripley

The location of the front door can become a critical design issue for community-based institutions in today’s cities. The symbolic address of the building, who will make use of it, and how those users will understand and respond to it, can all be radically altered by moving the door from one building face to another.

A case in point is the new St. Jamestown Community Centre in downtown Toronto by MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects, which has in fact two front doors. This building is located on the southwest corner of the St. Jamestown superblock in a neighbourhood just north and east of the downtown core of Toronto. Famously revitalized in the 1970s, its rows of Victorian houses were torn down and replaced by a collection of apartment towers. These towers differentiate the superblock immediately from the unrevitalized areas around it, with boundaries that are sharp and unambiguous. These sharp boundaries are in a way impenetrable, holding the life inside St. Jamestown isolated from and invisible to the rest of the city.

The new community centre is designed to break down this barrier of invisibility. The architects describe the project as a “new entry point” into St. Jamestown; I take this to mean not literally a physical way in, but a conceptual way into understanding or seeing. This is clear, for example, in the west wall of the gymnasium which has been glazed, offering a view–surprising and arresting, especially at night–of local youth playing basketball. The glazed elevation along Sherbourne Street immediately projects the building’s interior life out onto the street, and in full public view.

The main program blocks (a new branch library, athletic centre and day-care centre) are maintained as separate blocks of building. The library occupies the southwest corner of the site and of St. Jamestown, facing out onto Sherbourne Street. The athletic facility takes the northwest corner of the site, with the northeast earmarked as the future site of the aquatic facility. The day-care centre sits atop the library, isolated from the street, using the roof of the library as its playground. A fourth block, composed of meeting rooms for community use, makes up the southwest corner of the building.

These blocks have varying degrees of transparency; from the corridors between them there are always views out to the exterior. In the case of the meeting room block, for example, the view is through at least two layers of glass onto a landscaped terrace; on the ground floor, the meeting rooms actually have doors leading directly out into this public open space–a strange and wonderful detail, given typical security concerns in public buildings. The view through the day-care block from the second floor corridor goes through three layers of glazing before reaching a glimpse of the rooftop playground. One result is that these interstitial spaces, these cracks, are infused with light and view: to the west (Sherbourne Street), through the day-care; to the east (St. Jamestown), through the meeting rooms, but also to the north and south through regular windows, and also up to the sky through strip skylights and–at least from the second floor–down to the ground floor.

As one might expect, these public areas are constructed with a material palette that is best described as robust. Concrete block walls are typically stained rather than painted, resulting in a surprisingly bright, rich surface. This choice of materials has something to do with fears of vandalism, and something to do with budget, but also reinforces the fissure-like nature of the interstitial spaces. This is a clear reminder of the old adage of the studio professor that architecture is what happens in the spaces between the program.

The site east of the building has been left open. The north end of this outdoor area has been set aside for a future aquatic facility (temporarily lost in budget cuts), but the south end is intended as a public terrace. As the architects pointed out to me, this is one of the very few public outdoor spaces in St. Jamestown that is situated on the periphery of the superblock, reinforcing the notion of visibility in the project. Although the terrace reads as a forecourt to the building, open as it is to Wellesley Street, it is clearly behind the building from the point of view of the main doors and building signage on Sherbourne Street. In effect, the building is given two main doors, two fronts, one facing the city (Sherbourne Street) and one facing into the superblock and the terrace.

Between these two doors, the community centre occupies a space of overlap between St. Jamestown and the urban fabric of Toronto. The interstitial spaces become areas for cross-pollination in which users of the three institutional organisms encounter each other, as do residents of the superblock and those of the surrounding areas. A single entry lobby for the entire complex reinforces this space of encounter, while incidentally easing the problem of controlled access. The project thus tends to break down the sharp boundaries of St. Jamestown, running a careful balance of bringing the life of that community out to a space in which it can become visible to its neighbours, while allowing it to maintain its own identity.

Colin Ripley is an Associate Professor in Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science.

Architect Team Robert Allen, Carmine Canonaco, Lisa D’abbondanza, Erin Grandmaison, Viktors Jaunkalns, Sue Lennox, John Maclennan, Ella Mamiche, Barbara Mclean, David Miller, Tamira Sawatzky, Paul Stevens

Landscape Architect Gunta Mackars Landscape Architecture

Structural Blackwell Engineering

Mechanical/Electrical Day & Behn Engineering

Specifications Brian Ballantyne Specifications

Contractor the Atlas Corporation

Area 4,940 M2

Budget $9.2 Million

Completion August 2004

Photography Andrew Filarski