Durham College Centre for Food, Oshawa, Ontario
TEXT Leslie Jen
Located in Whitby, one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area, the Durham College Centre for Food (CFF) goes beyond the basic culinary and hospitality management education to encompass event planning and food science, along with agricultural and horticultural programs. The choice of Gow Hastings Architects seemed obvious, premised on the firm’s recent successes in culinary education facilities for Humber, Centennial and George Brown Colleges.
As a satellite to Durham College’s main campus in adjacent Oshawa, the small but developing Whitby campus aims to preserve its agrarian heritage despite its immediate context of dreary and uninspired strip malls and fast-food establishments. The CFF is a compelling presence and a definitive landmark for the region, boldly announcing itself along Highway 401 that snakes along Southern Ontario from Windsor to the Quebec border.
At just two storeys, the long, low form grounds the building in the landscape, establishing a connection to fertile fields to the south and orchards to the north. Responding to the extension of Consumers Drive eastward, the CFF inflects ever so slightly, its two skewed volumes meeting in a central double-height atrium space—marking the public entry to the building. Distinguished by a lush, green two-storey living wall, the soaring atrium marks the point of division between the culinary programs in the west wing, and the wine and hospitality programs in the east.
The school’s driving ethos of “field to fork” embodies the current locavore movement that promotes a diet based on locally raised fruit, vegetables and animal products—and steered the design in a direction that makes visible the entire food-cycle process. Much of the south-facing elevation is glazed, with views to the adjacent agricultural fields in which various crops are grown for use in the school’s culinary programs and restaurant.
In addition to food storage and distribution zones and a mock hotel suite for hospitality students, the comprehensive program includes a variety of teaching, culinary, wine-tasting and bake labs. Unlike the hermetic, cramped and hot kitchens they may invariably experience later on in working life, students enjoy cooking studios with large windows that permit ample natural daylight. Interior windows into the labs allow a greater degree of illumination and visibility, and encourage exploration and interactivity among students, staff and visitors. Flexibility was key to the design, so workstations are capable of rolling about on casters, facilitating a wide range of configurations conducive to ergonomic efficiency and productivity.
Culinary institutions are typically clinical and utilitarian; here, high-quality marble, ceramic tile, Corian and stainless steel are practical and attractive material choices for the kitchens and labs; elsewhere, warm woods, natural stone and a neutral colour palette translate into an elegant and inviting ambiance. As a counterpoint, brightly hued vermilion paint accents specific interior elements, while small tiles in various shades of soft green create a pixellated effect on corridor walls, reflecting the green glazed accent panels on the building’s exterior that represent Durham College’s signature colour.
One of the most successful elements of the project is the on-site restaurant, Bistro ’67, named for the year in which Durham College was founded. This full-service teaching-inspired restaurant seats 70 comfortably, and students prepare fresh meals utilizing locally harvested produce for lunch and dinner service. Soaring double-height ceilings, ample glazing, warm material choices and dramatic lighting make for a pleasurable dining experience, one that locals have eagerly embraced: the restaurant draws a steady stream of patrons from the region day and night, and has become a great connector to the community. The exaggerated linear space enables all diners to have a window seat overlooking the site, an aerie from which to observe passing traffic on the highway and encroaching development. But most importantly, it’s the view of the fertile agricultural land below that fascinates: diners can watch various vegetable crops being grown, harvested and brought into the building for preparation, storage and consumption—field to fork in action.
Yet to be realized in the project’s second phase is the construction of a broad ramp that links site and building. As fruit orchards, vegetable crops and greenhouses are already being tended to by horticultural students, it is hoped that this landscaped earthwork will enable on-site harvested produce to be brought directly into the second-floor kitchens for preparation and cooking. A dominant conceptual driver of the project, the ramp is an inspired architectural gesture that contributes a rich sectional dynamic to the CFF site. Moreover, it provides another opportunity for a planted surface, one on which less hardy species can be grown, thanks to the constancy of warm southern exposure.
David Hawey, Chair of the Centre for Food, expressed his enthusiasm for the College on the day of my visit as he—along with Gow Hastings senior associate Jim Burkitt—toured me through the dynamic array of highly functional spaces. Enrollment has been steadily increasing, and students and staff are luxuriating in the shiny newness of their school, motivated and encouraged by the thoughtfully designed features that make learning such a pleasure. To be sure, Durham College’s Centre for Food distinguishes itself in a banal and unremarkable suburban context through the quality of its architecture, and its programs and curriculum do much to educate the regional population of the importance of the agricultural process and how food gets on our plates.
Leslie Jen is a graduate architect and the former Associate Editor of Canadian Architect magazine.