Box Humana

PROJECT Terrence Donnelly Health Sciences Complex, University of Toronto Mississauga, Ontario
ARCHITECT Kongats Architects
TEXT Katharine Vansittart

In 1859, when Cumberland & Storm completed the Romanesque-inspired University College, the Victorian edifice was hailed as the height of Modern architecture. Since then, the University of Toronto has persisted in hiring accomplished architects to design forward-looking buildings for its St. George campus. Along the way, new additions and renovations to some of the older colleges have continued to enrich the city’s culture.

The tradition carries on at U of T Mississauga, a satellite campus 30 miles west of downtown Toronto. On a 90-hectare swath of greenbelt conservation land along the Credit River relatively free from urban space constraints, UTM has engaged in its own progressive building program. Launched in August 2011, the Terrence Donnelly Health Sciences Complex (TDHSC) by Toronto-based Kongats Architects is the latest addition, and the first of three new buildings that will complete the academic quad of UTM’s south campus. 

In just under 6,000 square metres, the four-storey cantilevered complex provides space and services for three distinct but interrelated groups; the first two floors house the Mississauga Academy of Medicine, the third floor contains the Department of Biomedical Communications, and the Department of Anthropology and Forensics have digs on the fourth. 

Kongats Architects principal Alar Kongats is standing in the courtyard of the TDHSC on a cloudy January day, recalling how his firm’s other well-known project–an addition to the 1923 Carnegie Library in Hespeler, Ontario–was a mini-prototype for this building. It, too, has a mirage-like dual-skin cladding, though it is made of “tattooed glass” rather than stainless steel. And it, too, is based on a modular system with a cantilevered floor. 

The TDHSC was initially planned as a steel-frame structure, but the architects switched to concrete at the urging of the project manager. In 2009, when the building was designed, the cost of steel began to soar. Changing to concrete as the main structural element meant more columns and made engineering the “boxes”–as Kongats calls the floor massing–more challenging. Benefits, however, included minimized vibration between the boxes, particularly the cantilevered portions. Concrete also provided a grounding foil to the structure’s essential floating and translucent character.

Depending on when and from where one first glances the TDHSC, it could evoke images of an oversized medical trolley or a space-age ship, at once staunch and intrepid. Are the stainless steel panels that form the exterior cladding metaphoric scalpels or sails? Is their formation stringently uniform or fractal like waves on water? From the north and east sides, viewed from the parking lot and courtyard respectively, the vertically aligned boxes seem mechanical and moored to the cement sidewalk. From the south and west, however, the shimmering vessel appears fantastical and adrift on a sea of glazing.

In fact, there is a geometric pattern to the cladding based on 500-millimetre modules, and there are just six sizes of “fin,” as Kongats refers to the steel panels. The dual-skin system consists of these CNC-cut fins, reinforced with galvanized steel webbing and joined using structural silicon adhesives. Behind the metal, a thermal break and vapour barrier form the inner epidermis that absorbs movement and repels weather. 

Adventurousness is found in how the fins open up in degrees around the windows, then gradually fold almost flush to the wall. According to the season, the time of day, sun or cloud, the fins and fenestration become animated. “It allows the building to connect better to the campus’s natural surroundings,” says Kongats. “Nature comes to the building.” 

Similar to how the fins wrap around the windows, windows wrap around the building. Floor-to-ceiling glazing on the ground floor resumes the architect’s taste for vertical repetition. The windows appear identical, but closer examination reveals each to be slightly different, custom-made to follow the site’s gentle decline; beginning with a height of 12 feet in the foyer, stretching to almost 20 feet at the slope’s nadir. Kongats finds the offbeat repetition calming. “On a subliminal level, you sense that this relates to that and that to this,” he explains.

Each stacked “box” is also organized around replication: repeated dropped concrete slabs and beams form the building’s stepped and skewed floorplates. This swayed massing, with its cantilevered sections, allowed several natural terraces trimmed with native plant green roofing to be introduced and, according to the architect, “led to an architectural expression that allows the building not to look so regimented.” Popular social areas, these outdoor “rooms” also further the architect’s commitment to connecting the building to the site’s geography and ecology. 

Given the bold exterior, the interior is bracingly utilitarian. A straightforward plan and no-nonsense material palette belie the complexity of the program. The nucleus of the ground floor is the lecture theatre, video-conference studio and a few classrooms. A pathway of radiant-heated terrazzo, enclosed by the membrane of windows, rims much of the first floor’s periphery. The radiant flooring is one of several design features intended to achieve LEED Gold certification for the TDHSC. The narrow second floor ensures that every office enjoys a window. Quieter rooms for research line the third floor. The labs are on the fourth floor for technical and exhaust reasons. Kongats’s spatial concept of compression and expansion enlivens each floor in different ways. Extra-wide corridors on the ground floor, for instance, juxtapose with a slender (for a university) stairwell. External fire stairs didn’t work with the cladding, so this stairwell is the main circulation route and fire exit, and is thus encased in fire glass. 

Underpinning the whole concept was how to make elements both unique and systematic, emphasizing the architect’s use of technology to improve “the craft” in construction, “to get the imagination going,” he suggests. “Start with the functional aspect, then think about how to do it differently than others have before.”

Subtle references to the medical model echo throughout, most apparent in stainless steel elements like the stair balustrade. Indeed, among the achievements of the complex is how well the building serves the nature of the curriculum. Along with his dedication to health and education, the main benefactor, Terrence Donnelly, has an appreciation of good architecture. He likes the building’s preciseness, as does the faculty, notes Kongats.

“They get how the building articulates the medical nature of this institution in creative, abstract ways. The engineering, the efficiency, the rationality–it’s all expressed in a language they understand.” As well, the boxes don’t only organize space in an exceptional way and animate the façade; they create an identity for each department, encouraging faculty and students to “take ownership over their space.” Success for Kongats is how well his experiment in unconventional massing paid off. 

The building operates 24/7 and is wired to the max. Though just 54 medical students are currently enrolled, 54 will be added each year until 2014. Connectivity between students and faculty, and between UTM and the downtown campus via state-o
f-the-art AV systems, was the architect’s less visible design challenge. In the studios, each desk has a microphone; overhead cameras track the speaker so students here and at the downtown St. George campus can see who’s speaking. In the hallways, communication is more low-tech; minimalist wood benches and café tables predominate. Kongats has been told that this building has become a favourite hangout, even for non-medical students and faculty. CA

Katharine Vansittart is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

Client University of Toronto
Architect Team Alar Kongats, Danielle Lam-Kulczak, Philip Toms, David Sasaki, Sukie Leung, Alessia Sopplesa, Dieter Janssen, Andrea Ling, Tyler Walker, Derek McCallum, Eric Van Ziffle
Structural Halsall Associates Limited
Mechanical/Electrical Crossey Engineering Ltd.
Laboratory Watson MacEwen Teramura Associates
Landscape Corban and Goode
Civil MGM Consulting Inc.
Audio-Visual Engineering Harmonics
Code Randal Brown & Associates Ltd.
Cost A.W. Hooker
Commissioning HFM
Building Envelope Brook Van Dalen & Associates Limited
Project Manager PMX Inc. (for the University of Toronto)
Contractor Harbridge + Cross Limited
Area 6,000 M2
Budget $25 M
Completion Fall 2011