Everybody’s Business

PROJECT Sauder School of Business, Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Acton Ostry Architects Inc.
TEXT Adele Weder
PHOTOS Nic Lehoux, unless otherwise noted

Business is a sector that prides itself above all in innovation, being on top of time, adapting to changing conditions; moreover, it is proud to stand out. The architecture of the head office has sporadically reflected this–among others, Johnson Wax and the Seagram Building–but business schools have traditionally dissolved into the general morass of university architecture, neither distinctive nor particularly suited to the subject.

Breaking away from that sorry tradition is the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. At the centre of the campus, the major addition to and renovation of a shopworn mid-1960s building is just the first phase of a multi-year wholesale transformation of the entire complex. But with its penthouse addition, five-storey wraparound expansion and all the amenities within it, it’s the key phase.

Led by Russell Acton, Marc Ostry and Alex Percy, the design team faced a “dog’s breakfast” in the old Thompson Berwick & Pratt (TB & P) building, recounts Acton. The original 1965 structure was appended in the 1970s by two Brutalist blocks and then in the 1980s by a Postmodern tower.

When Acton Ostry first took on the project, the complex was not only dilapidated but completely untenable with respect to current standards of student comfort. “Here we’re talking about a world-class business school, with the highest standards of research in Canada, and yet they had a terrible facility,” recalls Acton. In addition to its inefficiency in handling modern interactive technology, the building had few provisions for the student body in general. Between classes, students sat on floors in dark hallways, recalls Acton: “It just wasn’t dignified.”

The key ambition was to bring light, comfort, visual unity and “corporate cool” into the project. For the five-level addition, the design team employed the concept of a bar code as the generating device for the pattern of the glazed faade wrap. The result is an evocative alternation of transparent and translucent glass panels–a leitmotif for the project. “It counters the banality of how glass is used in the city,” says Acton.

At the heart of the transformation is the full-height atrium, defined on one side by the old classroom block and on the other three sides by the new addition. The atrium serves as focal point, plan generator and unifier, fusing the original building with the new five-storey addition and creating a hub to which the spokes of every other department can link.

Open from basement to top floor, the atrium’s skylit ceiling undams a flood of daylight that seems to pour into every nook and corridor, right down to the sub-grade floor at the very bottom. On the upper levels, the balusters of the wraparound balcony fence correspond in position and scale to the vertical concrete ribs projecting from the older faade, visually uniting the two structures.

The light-and-transparency motif carries through with interventions on the older building. TB & P’s classroom block is now topped with Acton Ostry’s penthouse addition, which comprises the Robert H. Lee graduate school. The fully glazed addition streams light into the top floor, and offers a sun-filled corner lounge and outdoor deck for stressed-out grad students on their breaks.

The mode of education delivery has been inverted from teacher-centred to student-oriented, says the school’s dean, Dan Muzyka–or “Dean Dan,” as he is affectionately known by students and peers alike. It’s a salutation that reflects the changing culture in business education. Traditonal school-design approaches have been based on the proverbial “sage-on-stage” model, where the instructor was the focus of the program, and the architectural environment was built around that premise.

The more interactive, student-led approach requires more breakout rooms, lounges, and basic gestures to accommodate the presence of students. Program and facilities are increasingly geared to allow students to participate proactively in their education. The contemporary business school, says Muzyka, is “less about teaching and more about learning.”

In this project, transparency is a concept that moves beyond the literal and symbolic into a practical tool for conveying a fusion of the two. The concept is put to its most distinctively powerful use for the donor recognition program. In place of a lugubrious gilt-framed oil painting or a sterile engraved metal plaque, the architects devised a brilliant mode of incorporating donors’ likenesses into the glazed interior walls on each floor. A series of “grey-scale” images, similar to the half-tone photographs in old-fashioned newspaper photographs, was generated using the symbols of international currency as pixels. It’s an ingenious concept, one that sublimates the gender and age of the donors (i.e., male and middle) into an abstraction of the person. As you approach each glass donor wall, you can read the bio-info plaque but the fritted pixellation dissolves the facial outlines; as you walk away, the identity of each donor becomes more literally apparent.

For good measure, the school’s eponymous donor gets the full monty: a four-storey glass panel of Mr. William L. Sauder, former head of International Forest Products, towers up through one atrium wall segment like a centuries-old conifer. The trees get their due as passive donors too, by way of a similar fritted pixellation of a forest scene, embedded in the glass wall of the student lounge.

This concept of a grey-scale recurs throughout the project, more abstractly in the glazed grid of the rear faade. Here, a strategic mix of transparent panels, opaque glass panels, and steel ventilation grilles create a pattern, generating an artful arrangement. Crowning this wing of the project is the valley-roofed Jimmy Pattison Leadership Centre. Constructed with huge ribs of bentwood glulam beams, each of its two lobes generates a strikingly curved roofline that acts as a counterpoint to the rectilinearity of the main building, set back from the rooftop edge in a gesture of astute restraint.

Business is a sector that often measures its success through quantitative terms, but in this case, it’s the qualitative observations that are more useful. On this reporter’s recent site visit–just a typical Wednesday morning in the middle of the fall term–the students looked markedly at ease in their new built environment. They ensconce themselves comfortably in the ground-floor caf, which is entirely open to the main foyer but for a row of energetically hued lime-green seismic braces. Or they lounge around on the oversize “sitting steps” built into the staircase outside of the main auditorium. And they seem mostly bereft of that university-student pallor generated by cheap fluorescent lighting and sleep-deprived angst.

This massive and well-orchestrated synthesis of function and aesthetics marks the entry of Acton Ostry into a different league. The firm’s earlier work, such as the Har El Synagogue in West Vancouver and two elementary schools in Haida Gwaii, presented a young and culturally ambitious firm with a slight tendency to overcomplicate things visually. This much larger and more complex project is ironically the firm’s most cohesive major work. Perhaps a higher level of discipline was honed or summoned by the relentless demands of such an intricate project.

Whatever the case, the Sauder School of Business transformation is a brilliantly unified response to a highly complex and demanding program. The interflowing spaces and deft use of materials relay the school’s energy, inclusiveness and interaction with society, as Muzyka says. “The symbolism is very important,” he maintains. “Business is not apart from society, and business needs to be transparent.” CA

Adele Weder is an architectural curator and critic based in British Columbia.

Client University of British Columbia
Architect Team Russell Acton, Mark Ostry, Alex Percy, Stewart Child, Antonio Colin, Annalisa Meyboom, Ryan McCuaig, Peter Padley, Volker Ritter, Rafael Santa Ana, Mark Simpson, Nebo Slijepcevic, Hannah Teicher, Sergei Vahkrameev, Andrew Weyrauch, Matthew Wood, David Zeibin
Structural Glotman Simpson Consulting Engineers, JM Engineering
Mechanical Cobalt Engineering
Electrical Stantec
Landscape Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg
Interiors Acton Ostry Architects Inc.
Contractor Scott Construction Group
Acoustic Daniel Lyzun & Associates
Audiovisual MC2 System Design Group
Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment Caroline Webster
Wayfinding Gallop/Varley
Code Gage Babcock
Civil Earth Tech, Fransen Engineering
Building Envelope Read Jones Christoffersen
Area 58,500 ft2 (new construction); 48,500 ft2 (renovation)
Budget $45 M
Completion January 2010