PROJECT University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa, Ontario
ARCHITECTS Diamond + Schmitt Architects Inc.
TEXT Jacob Allderdice
PHOTOS Steven Evans, Unless Otherwise Noted
Most Canadians who know Oshawa, Ontario, know it as a Toronto-area city whose fortunes rise and fall with that of its largest employer, General Motors. For many, Oshawa is just a series of overpasses on the 401, or a gritty downtown dotted with parking lots, or a news item about job losses in the automotive sector. In Jane Jacobs’s last book, Dark Age Ahead, which offers a paean to other, more diversified Toronto-area cities, Oshawa gets just one mention: for “Canada’s highest smog levels” amongst “car-dependent suburbs.”
But for Dr. Gary Polonsky, Oshawa had another meaning. For 18 years, Polonsky was president of the city’s Durham College, and he dreamed of creating “the MIT of Canada.” Indeed, since 2003, when the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) opened its doors, a statement linking Oshawa, Ontario with Cambridge, Massachusetts sounds less and less strange. Today the university is said to have among the highest percentage of professors with PhDs in Canada. It is also worth noting that Polonsky received a 2005 RAIC Award of Excellence as an “Advocate for Architecture” on the basis of his work to make UOIT a reality.
The school is among Canada’s youngest universities, and the first new university in Ontario since the founding of Trent, in 1964. A recent visit to the campus turned up the following graffiti in the men’s room in the science building: “U Owe IT,” possibly a reference to tuition costs. But what you owe it, in fact, is a good long look. For architects, the question is: if Trent established the reputation of its chief architect, Ron Thom, what will UOIT do for its architect, Don Schmitt? Is it realistic to speak of UOIT alongside Harvard, Stanford or the University of Virginia? And finally, where does Disneyland fit into the picture?
As Polonsky explains, “It all started on May 9, 2001, when the Ontario government announced it would create a new university, based on the observation by many that Ontario did not have an MIT: a research- and science-based university. It was felt that given the nature of Ontario’s economy, it was time we had one of those.”
But why Oshawa? “Durham region (home to the cities of Oshawa and Pickering) had a persistent group of citizens who argued that a community of 600,000, forecast to be a million, should have a university as well as a college. They cited places like Manitoba or Saskatchewan, with populations at similar levels, where there are multiple choices of universities.”
Durham also had in its favour the fact that all six of the local MPPs were on the government side–and in fact five of the six were in cabinet. “I would say the choice for Durham was 80% rational, 20% political,” says Polonsky.
Polonsky, appointed president of the new university, set out on a fact-finding mission: a road trip to ascertain what makes a great campus. Together with urban designer Phil Weinstein and landscape architect Brad Johnson, he visited Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Boston College, the University of Michigan, Princeton and the University of Virginia, among others. He came back with a sketch master plan by Weinstein and Johnson
for a new campus at the northern edge of the car-dependent residential development where Durham College lies, an “inch-thick” stack of notes, and material for his doctorate in education. Among his findings:
* keep campuses to four storeys: buildings of human scale, but also efficient land use (UOIT’s buildings are all four storeys tall)
* make buildings energy efficient (the campus has LEED Gold certification and is home to the largest borehole thermal energy storage system in Canada)
* design beautiful landscapes: pay attention to the details (Polonsky monitored which species of trees and flowers will be planted, and where they should go)
* once a campus plan is arrived at that is cogent, stick with it (Polonsky was firm, even at the behest of wealthy donors like GM)
* research gobbles up land: strive to have land in reserve (UOIT owns 400 acres north of its site and has plans to build there)
* use natural, locally sourced materials (for Ontario this meant wood, concrete and brick–although, as Don Schmitt acknowledges, “the brick ultimately came from Manitoba”)
* strive for natural light in the buildings (“daylight harvesting” has stuck; a real effort was made to keep all offices and classrooms within 25 feet of a window or skylit atrium)
* aim to anticipate trends in technology; have a campus that can remain at the cutting edge (the campus is equipped for wireless internet usage as well as state-of-the-art surveillance and security systems)
* take advantage of natural land features and historical elements (the ravine and rolling landscape of the area were protected and enhanced)
* include public art and sculpture as inspiration for students and faculty (UOIT, according to Polonsky, is a “Canadian sculpture park,” with significant artwork from each province).
If Polonsky’s notes read like some version of A Pattern Language, architect Christopher Alexander’s “catalogue of parts” for timeless design, it’s a coincidence; Polonsky is unfamiliar with the book. Had he read it, however, he might have been intrigued by pattern number 43: “University as Marketplace.” In it, Alexander describes the original university as “a collection of teachers with something to offer.” This university is analogous to a traditional marketplace, with “hundreds of tiny stalls.” The university can never be an “isolated campus,” but must be woven into the city. Alexander’s pattern posits a central crossroads of concentrated classrooms, with other classrooms dispersed and mixed in with the town: a far cry from today’s UOIT campus, ringed by arterial roads and fringed by suburban sprawl and open farmland.
Don Schmitt, of the Toronto firm Diamond + Schmitt Architects Inc., came onto the scene in March 2002 after an invited competition for a single new campus building. “They told us in an ideal world they would have their first students in 2005. They gave us a loose program and a deadline. They had a remarkable jury of about 25 people (including just one architect, who taught in the Durham College architectural technology department). And we were selected.”
It turned out this 25-member jury was key to Gary Polonsky’s operating method. According to Schmitt, “What Gary had done was get every interested party together–deans, students, teachers, a project manager, as well as Weinstein and Johnson.” Later, this team would meet regularly during design and construction to review the work and make recommendations.
As Schmitt recalls, “After we won the competition, about two or three weeks later, Gary Polonsky came to a meeting and said ‘What would you think of having this building done by 2004?’ That was at the beginning of the meeting. By the end, Gary said, ‘So we’re settled then, we’ll have the building done by September ’03.’ I said, ‘That’s 17 months from now. That’s extraordinary.’ All we had at that point was a tabula rasa sketch of an empty site: we needed to plan sewer, water, gas…”
Schmitt handled the shift in deadline by setting himself up as an “impresario” leading a multidisciplinary team. “In order to meet the new deadline, we needed to be under construction before we finished drawing.”
Remarkably, the deadline and pressure did no harm to the quality of design. The campus is lovely; the buildings are solid. Students walk around or work quietly in the winter gardens. The library, with its reflecting pool and its circular fireplace room are redolent with serious purpos
e. UOIT runs like a well-oiled machine. Security cameras are ubiquitous but discreet. All buildings have two orientations: the street side and the quadrangle side, where Polonsky has his “academic village.” Outside, the streets are wide and have massive traffic-calming humps every 50 metres, hinting at Oshawa’s car-dependent reality. But the inside face of the buildings is calm and serene, with red brick faades, a green lawn and a reflecting pool in front of the new library. A trellised walkway links the library and the science building and frames a view west toward the campus ravine. Many buildings have green roofs, and the science building will have a four-storey high “living wall” to enhance and filter internal air. “The biofilter wall was seen as untested technology by the board of governors,” says Schmitt. “But in the system we installed at the University of Guelph, it was a huge success. UOIT is doing theirs next.”
The campus’s central quadrangle hides a 200-metre-deep energy storage system, which reduces summer cooling and winter heating costs. Also below grade is a service tunnel that whisks garbage and recycling to a central depot shared by Durham College, and provides efficient linkage for other services. Bruce Bunker, the Director of Special Projects, provides occasional tours of the underground world at UOIT to its visitors. As he swipes his security pass for access to the tunnels, he says, “Dr. Polonsky wanted the campus to look like Harvard; we wanted it to run like Disneyland.”
Disneyland? “Actually, we did use the Disneyland analogy,” says Schmitt. “A Disneyland principle we used is in the auditoriums, where you can enter at the back and exit at the front. It’s just the issue of 250 students leaving while another 250 try and get in. It’s something I learned with my kids at Disneyland: you arrive in the theatre and you exit in a different direction because there’s another crowd waiting to come in.”
Polonsky hesitates at the mention of Disneyland. “If it’s meant as a metaphor for clean, good logistics, I say okay, but not in the sense of ‘glitz’ or ‘Mickey Mouse.'”
But the Disneyland analogy hints at a more subtle, darker issue. It is, of course, the notion of “spectacle, surveillance and control” that Diane Ghirardo raises in her book Architecture After Modernism. There she names a different Disney principle: the “architectural theme park” that hides violence against real events and reveals condescension toward architects, with “Imagineers” in control of design, and architecture as a backdrop, in three-quarter scale. “Whatever the appeal of Disney’s lands, as a political ethic it represents the tyranny of engineered happiness and consensus. It is undergirded by the fundamental notion that conflict disrupts the satisfaction of consumption…”
In the case of UOIT, it could be argued that the model of efficiency and crowd control works against the pedagogical potential of a “green” campus. Asked about this potential, Schmitt hesitates, offering a general description of how the public spaces, the atria and corridors offer places for “connection” between disciplines. That all this takes place under the watchful eye of the black bubbles containing surveillance cameras goes unstated. And the fact is, by hiding the sustainable design features in a service tunnel, by creating a super-efficient system for removing garbage la Disneyland, the architecture denies itself the chance to educate the citizens of the university about what is really going on–what is really involved in the management of their waste and the provision for their needs.
Tony Fry, whose book Towards a New Design Philosophy: an Introduction to Defuturing (see CA, September 2001) warns of “corporate sustainability” as “but another manifestation of pragmatic capitalism recognizing crisis at its most reductive level… and setting out to convert problems into economic opportunities.” Does this describe UOIT, with its LEED Gold rating? Elsewhere in his book, Fry writes: “We do not see the corporation. We do not see technology. We are misled by objects and appearances.”
Ontario deserves an MIT. In UOIT, it might yet have it. But MIT is famous for its “hacker” culture, something UOIT will not foster unless it can significantly lessen the Disneyland “control.”
Jacob Allderdice is an architectural graduate and urban designer. He is the coordinator of the sustainable architectural technology program at the International Academy of Design in Toronto.
CLIENT UNIVERSITY OF ONTARIO INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
PRINCIPAL IN CHARGE DONALD SCHMITT
PROJECT ARCHITECTS MICHAEL SZABO, WARREN MAC, BRECK MCFARLANE, DONNA DOLAN, MATT SMITH, SYDNEY BROWNE, MIKE SZABO
STRUCTURAL YOLLES PARTNERSHIP
MECHANICAL KEEN ENGINEERING (NOW STANTEC), CROSSEY ENGINEERING LTD.
ELECTRICAL CARINCI BURT ROGERS (NOW STANTEC), CROSSEY ENGINEERING LTD.
CIVIL TOTTEN SIMS HUBICKI ASSOCIATES
LANDSCAPE DU TOIT ALLSOPP HILLIER
INTERIORS DIAMOND AND SCHMITT ARCHITECTS INC.
CONSTRUCTION MANAGER ELLISDON CORP.
COST CONSULTANTS VERMEULENS COST CONSULTANTS/CM2R
CODE LEBER RUBES
AREA 43,100 M2 (BUILDING); 473,692 M2 (SITE)
BUDGET $220 MILLION (PHASE 1)
COMPLETION SEPTEMBER 2003 (GENERAL ACADEMIC BUILDING); SEPTEMBER 2004 (SCIENCE BUILDING, SCHOOL OF BUSINESS AND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY, LIBRARY); AUGUST 2006 (SCHOOL OF MANUFACTURING ENGINEERING); SEPTEMBER 2006 (INFRASTRUCTURE AND LANDSCAPE DESIGN-PHASE 4); 2009 (AUTOMOTIVE CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE)