Campus Classic: Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship, University of Toronto

ARCHITECTS Montgomery Sisam Architects in association with Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

While country-wide educational budgets continue to be strained, the University of Toronto’s downtown St. George campus maintains an ambitious construction program prioritizing design excellence. This is evident in the Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship, the outcome of a six-year joint venture between Toronto-based Montgomery Sisam Architects and the UK’s Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios.

Opened last September, the Myhal Centre is a cross-disciplinary research and teaching hub, which serves the University’s wide range of engineering disciplines. It marks a shift toward applied engineering; here, students, faculty, researchers, alumni and industry partners work together to foster active learning, encourage entrepreneurial activity and accelerate innovation. The building’s design is also a means to enable cultural change—stimulating multidisciplinary collaboration and social interactions was a key driver.

The rhythmic façade of the new engineering centre takes its proportions and material cues from neighbouring campus buildings. Photo by Tom Rideout

Surrounded by a mix of buildings spanning the University’s 150-year history, the eight-storey Centre sits squarely on the last unbuilt site along the campus’s main thoroughfare. Its massing and footprint preserve sightlines and well-trodden paths between notable campus buildings, while materials, composition and scale provide a clear architectural language that impresses without imposing. Precast concrete fins accompanied by an inlay of brick and dark bronze windows form an external gridded frame, which subtly responds to each façade’s respective solar orientation and context.

Site plan axonometric. Courtesy Montgomery Sisam

Montgomery Sisam principal Robert Davies cites the understated works of abstract painter Agnes Martin as an inspiration for the simple, disciplined aesthetic of the building. Martin’s delicate hand-drawn lines, which sum toward the shape of a grid, “aspire to a kind of engineering precision while honouring the imperfections of the human hand,” says Davies. Similarly, the architects aimed for a restrained, dignified architectural expression, respectful of its academic setting. “I think there is a place for modesty, longevity, gravitas and seriousness in architecture,” says Feilden Clegg Bradley principal Peter Clegg. “That’s what this building is about—it is a backdrop to serious engineering.” The building is quiet; the creative buzz comes from within.

The fully glazed, active ground floor creates both physical and visual connections to its surroundings. Wrapping the perimeter is a continuous sitting-height concrete plinth, walkways edged with planters, and a colonnade marking the building’s threshold.

While the interior continues the use of well-appointed materials and carefully crafted details, it is decidedly unconventional in its space planning. This came about from the need to accommodate a variety of large-volume spaces on the tight infill site. A 468-seat auditorium occupies more than 60 percent of levels one and two. Tucked beneath its underbelly is the student arena, a versatile, double-height mix of maker space, garage-startup and lab. Connecting levels five through eight is a dramatic central atrium ringed by offices, meeting rooms and informal study spaces. This upper atrium—the visual showpiece of the design—is a surprise that is undetectable upon entering the building.

Photo by Tom Rideout

Each of these areas has its own distinct character. The cavernous arena fosters a creative skunkworks culture, supporting Engineering’s 100-plus clubs and co-curricular activities, from music to mechatronics. Used 24 hours a day, this “play” space enhances student hands-on experience, enabling co-learning, co-creation and the collaborative ethic that drives entrepreneurship. A ramp allows for vehicular access—necessary for bringing in large materials and towing out autonomous cars, concrete canoes and the like—while garage door–lined alcoves around the edges offer dedicated project spaces.

You can look into this dynamic maker-space from the double-height entrance hall above. But when you first set foot in the building, it is the imposing auditorium that is immediately visible. Clad in warm Baltic birch, its seemingly-suspended, sculpted presence dominates the vast entrance hall. It creates a void at the base of the building and a formidable challenge from a structural point of view.

Visible from the ground floor, the lower-level arena is a workshop space that includes securable garages for group projects. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

Inside, this first-of-its-kind interactive space doesn’t have rows of seats. Instead, it boasts seven tiers of bespoke tables outfitted with plug-and-play forms, with each table accommodating four to six students. This multi-functional format encourages group interaction, while allowing instructors to project work on a 18.3-metre-wide LED screen—the largest of its type in eastern Canada, according to the architects—that stretches the width of the room.

The main auditorium replaces the usual stage-facing seats with small tables that allow for workshops and collaboration-focused seminars.
Photo by Tom Rideout

Outside the auditorium, people stream through sunlit event and flex space, peppered with modular birch furniture. Wide terrazzo stairs with white frosted glass balustrades and oil-rubbed bronze railings draw visitors upwards to classrooms and design studios.

Rising still higher, one is rewarded by the discovery of the most striking part of the building: the four-storey elevated atrium. It is topped by six conical light wells—which double as return air intakes—whose sculpted white forms provide a graceful counterpoint to the complex constructs below. The rooms surrounding the atrium are home to many of the faculty’s multidisciplinary research institutes and centres. Also here are innovative educational initiatives, like the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, a startup accelerator where students pitch ideas, engage mentors and meet with investors. Clustering these accommodations around and within the atrium allows visibility across different uses. The atrium acts as a social anchor, with a generous feature stair that encourages serendipitous interactions.

A skylit atrium is a spatial surprise, creating a micro-community on the upper four storeys of the building. Photo by Tom Rideout

What is absent is also notable. The traditional “chalk-and-talk” seminar room and hushed library are gone. Instead, technology-enhanced active learning spaces equipped with mobile furniture and interactive LCDs are intended to adapt to evolving pedagogical approaches. Rapid prototyping and fabrication facilities allow student innovators to build, test, iterate and bring their products to market. Notwithstanding the growing emphasis on group work, there are plenty of solitary study nooks scattered throughout.

The building’s simple cubic geometry is realized through a robust, exposed cast-in-place concrete structure with large clear spans (and massive transfer beams) that enable long views through and across. Nearly all spaces have access to daylight. Floor-to-ceiling windows cast ample natural light deep into the floor plate, while the raised atrium’s early morning sunlight carries a Kahn-like quality. Circulation is carefully choreographed as the architects pushed the limits on stair rise and run to create a continuous gentle ascent through the building. Places where people naturally congregate—such as open staircases, landings and balconies—are fattened, transforming choke points into dwell zones. Programmed space is balanced by an equal amount of in-between space: a recognition that learning happens everywhere, anytime.

The skylights topping the atrium bring diffuse daylight into the upper levels of the building, which house offices, meeting rooms and study spaces. Photo by Adrian Ozimek

With a projected energy use of 110 kWh/m2, the Myhal Centre aims to be one of the most sustainable post-secondary facilities in Canada and an exemplar of low-energy design for the city. Initiatives include rooftop photovoltaics, passive solar shading and underfloor distribution ventilation. Tapping into the University’s district energy system also reduces emissions. Both in design and in use, the building is an expression and an incubator of creativity and innovation.

The architects conceived the building to last 100 years—designing it to adapt to shifting trends in education, be durable as a structure and showcase sustainability in its engineering systems. It’s a laudable goal that seems like it may be achievable. The enduring, highly contextual architecture of the Myhal Centre quietly blends into its urban campus setting, making it seem as though it’s always been there.

Stephanie Calvet is a Massachusetts-registered architect and writer specializing in architecture and design. She is based in Toronto.

CLIENT University of Toronto | ARCHITECT TEAM Montgomery Sisam—Robert Davies (FRAIC), Jason Dobbin (MRAIC), William Harispuru (MRAIC), Tony Ross (MRAIC), Shannon Wiley. Feilden Clegg Bradley—Peter Clegg, Jake Armitage, Simon Doody. | STRUCTURAL Read Jones Christoffersen | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Smith + Andersen | LANDSCAPE NAK Design Studios | INTERIORS Montgomery Sisam Architects | SUSTAINABILITY Footprint | ENVELOPE Synergy | HERITAGE ERA Architects | CONTRACTOR Bird Construction | SYSTEMS INTEGRATION CONSULTANT Ted Kesik, Ph.D., P.Eng. | AREA 14,864 m2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION April 2018

Energy Use

ENERGY USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) 110 kWh/m2/year | BENCHMARK (Non-medical institutional/commercial buildings in Canada after 2010, Statistics Canada) 305 kWh/m2/year