Exchange Centre: Lazaridis Hall, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario
PROJECT Lazaridis Hall, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario
ARCHITECTS Diamond Schmitt Architects with David Thompson Architect Ltd. (Associate Architect)
TEXT Magdalena Milosz
PHOTOS Doublespace Photography
Since its founding in 1960, Wilfrid Laurier University has had a habit of looking inward—at least in terms of urban design. Situated at the southwest corner of University and King, the Waterloo campus of the mid-sized university has, until recently, faced the street with a series of seemingly impenetrable walls.
Lazaridis Hall—its newest addition—breaks the pattern by extending the campus northward and embracing the community. Inside, math and business students rub shoulders with faculty and professionals in a dynamic, high-tech environment centred on a soaring atrium.
“It was the first venture across the street, so to speak,” says Donald Schmitt, FRAIC, principal at Diamond Schmitt Architects, “an opportunity for real identity and presence on University Avenue.”
From a distance, the building announces itself with four stories of shifting, rectangular volumes clad in vertical strips of charcoal-coloured zinc, punctuated by two drums covered in warm-toned wood. The first drum contains a 300-seat classroom hovering above a glass-wrapped café; the second is a 1,000-seat auditorium for convocations and other events. As a gateway building, Lazaridis Hall is dramatic yet effortless, distinguishing itself from its surroundings and creating visual openness with continuous glazing at grade. From the sidewalk, one can catch glimpses of student club meetings and the bustle of the café, which will include outdoor seating in the warmer months.
Planning the 21,000-square-metre facility was a challenge due to a four-metre slope across the site and the rapidly changing neighbourhood context of Northdale. The post-war, single-family residential area has been shifting towards denser development—chiefly in the form of apartments catering to students of Laurier and the nearby University of Waterloo. The formal push-and-pull of Lazaridis Hall responds to these transforming surroundings, anticipating future densities while respecting the height of existing low-rise neighbours to the east.
As the building sits tight to the east and west lot lines, north-south circulation through the site converges on an interior “street” that leads to a rear parking lot, recently outfitted with an electric vehicle charging station. The lot provides space for future development, which may reinterpret Lazaridis Hall’s north elevation. At present, the stacked volumes that work well on the front appear monolithic and stark at rear, particularly with a mechanical penthouse looming over the fourth floor.
The building regains nuance with its west elevation, which faces St. Michael’s Catholic Church, built in 1965 with an iconic, swooping roof. “There’s something really lyrical about it,” says Birgit Siber, FRAIC, the lead principal on the project, pointing to the visual interplay of the church roof and the auditorium drum. On this side, the top two floors of Lazaridis Hall cantilever dramatically over the drum’s cylindrical form, which continues inside and is legible from a variety of vantage points.
Originally known as the Global Innovation Exchange, the building was renamed following a $20-million donation by Mike Lazaridis (founder of BlackBerry and a prolific philanthropist in research and education) to create the Lazaridis Institute for the Management of Technology Enterprises. Capitalizing on the tremendous output—in both revenue and startups—of Waterloo Region’s technology industry, the institute aims to assist in scaling up Canadian tech companies. It will share the new building with Laurier’s Department of Mathematics and the Lazaridis School of Business & Economics, one of the largest business schools in Canada.
The building is thus a hybrid between a school and a centre for incubating emerging tech firms. Wisely, the design team has eschewed gimmicky tech startup references in favour of an elegant interior palette of wood, concrete, glass and Algonquin limestone.
“As architects, we have a certain sensibility and a way of thinking, of organizing programs,” says Schmitt. Nowhere is this attuned insight more evident than in the heart of the building, where the four-storey atrium, capped by an expansive, undulating skylight, orients circulation and functions as a central forum. Initially conceived as an exterior courtyard, Wilfrid Laurier’s president, Max Blouw, saw an opportunity for a grand interior gathering space, and the design team gladly followed suit.
Recalling the firm’s previous projects—the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto and the nearby Cambridge City Hall come to mind—the atrium enables a kind of architectural hide-and-seek, with glass-enclosed balconies and meeting rooms alternating with wood-slat screens that mediate daylight and views. A sculptural staircase in glass and white ceramic panels, located at one end of the atrium, acts as a stage from which students and faculty can see and be seen. In addition to formal and material cues, the firm’s past experience was influential in the care taken with acoustics throughout the building. “Everything we use in our theatres goes into these spaces,” says Siber.
In the rings of corridors surrounding the atrium, 240 faculty offices are interspersed among classrooms, high-tech math labs and meeting rooms. The entire building is wired for active learning and digital collaboration. Yet nearly every space also has access to daylight; whether from outside or through the atrium, whose skylight is fritted to even out glare. Siber says that maintaining daylight throughout the building was a priority. “It’s much healthier to have a sense of time of day.”
A small bamboo grove at ground level, chosen to add greenery while maintaining views across the atrium, is another feature that connects the comfort and health of users to the sustainability of the project. The building is a LEED Gold candidate, and Siber says it is aiming to meet 2030 Challenge targets: data from its first months of operation is now available and will be verified against energy models. The photovoltaic-ready roof sports an installation of 300 panels.
While the atrium is the formal and functional core of the building, another space will exalt those who stumble upon it, or have the good fortune to be near it day-to-day. At the top of the atrium stair, a spacious and light-filled corridor leads to a delightful roof terrace situated over the auditorium. Framed by simple planting beds and a continuous bench, the terrace provides a moment of stillness away from the bustle of academic—and entrepreneurial—life.
“As architects, we are very interested in community—and architecture as a vessel for community,” Schmitt observes. “That’s especially important in academic buildings.” While the atrium brings people together, the terrace provides space for contemplation. In this, as in other aspects of this land-mark project for Wilfrid Laurier, Lazaridis Hall has struck a fine balance.
Magdalena Milosz is a writer and PhD student in the School of Architecture at McGill University.