Canadian Architect

Feature

Creative Establishment

The transformation of an old lunatic asylum re-uses and consolidates heritage elements into a contemporary campus.

February 1, 2005
by Ian Chodikoff

Humber Institute for Technology and Advanced Learning, Toronto campus

Taylor | Hazell Architects Ltd.

In the early 1990s, Humber College decided to expand its academic facilities by incorporating its neighbouring site: the abandoned Mimico Lunatic Asylum, located along the shores of Lake Ontario just outside of Toronto. Separated by a windswept field, the site was near but not adjacent to the original and neglected Humber College facilities. Through the successful restoration and adaptive re-use of an old psychiatric hospital, the new Humber Institute for Technology and Advanced Learning provides a useful case study to assess early 20th-century architecture in an existing heritage landscape as a viable catalyst for the redefinition of an academic institution.

Over the past 15 years, Taylor | Hazell Architects have acted as the prime consultant for the site’s transformation. The design interventions throughout the campus have been delivered with an economy of means and clear intentions that encompass three main strategies: the re-use of existing heritage buildings, the consolidation and evolution of the original site plan, and lastly, the priming of the campus for future growth. Overall, the sensitivity to place and history can be appreciated throughout the conversion of the original six “cottages” and five hospital buildings. The inner courtyard contains a restored building that has been turned into a coffee shop, while a rather unfortunate building that was constructed in 1974 to assemble furniture and picture frames has been converted to serve as a highly functional black-box theatre facility.

In 1900, Irish-trained Kevis Tully designed what was then considered a utopian response to psychiatric care with generously spaced buildings, breezy porches and a nearly idyllic lakeside landscape. As the means of delivering psychiatric care shifted to more urban facilities with hermetic architectural expressions, the Queen Anne brick residential cottages that formed a loosely bounded quadrangle descended into disrepair. Suffering vandalism, deterioration and the eventual threat of complete demolition since its closure in the 1980s, Humber College made the decision to acquire the 15.6-acre site with a 99-year lease from the Province of Ontario. Humber then began the process of converting the 250,000 square feet of historic buildings into a community college for its 5,000 students. Over the past decade, the school has spent over $60 million on construction.

Since acquiring the site, the school has actively consolidated and developed its programs in comedy, creative writing, theatre and communications. For example, The Humber School for Writers offers one of the finest creative writing workshops in North America and continues to attract visiting faculty such as Margaret Atwood, Wayson Choy, Alistair MacLeod, Paul Quarrington and Guy Vanderhaeghe.

Situated adjacent to Lake Ontario, the dramatic site is representative of a time when institutional buildings such as hospitals and educational facilities commanded an exceptional presence through a sober architectural language partnered with sprawling and ambitious landscapes. Over time, facilities such as the Mimico Lunatic Asylum grew into obsolescence. In Toronto, similar facilities have experienced the fate of demolition such as John Howard’s Provincial Lunatic Asylum (1846-50) and Tully’s earlier Trinity College (1851-2). The demolition of these facilities allowed segments of architectural history in Canada to be lost, along with the cultural and historic significance associated with the many innovations and discoveries that took place within these institutions.

In order to respond to provincial heritage easements, the restoration process included the analysis and reconstruction of components of the existing landscape and buildings including the original ring road, porches, gable entrances and some of the roofs that had been removed in the 1930s. Taylor | Hazell also developed an intelligent design proposal that would address the desire to create a series of institutional pavilions situated in a park-like setting that would engender an intimate academic community.

One of the larger challenges the architects faced was the need to reuse the existing tunnel systems for the servicing of mechanical, electrical and communications. A 400-foot below-grade service building was buried along the perimeter of the quadrangle and the roof became part of a walkway that wraps around the quadrangle, serving to connect the various buildings. There is a cantilevered platform to the south end of the concourse sheltering a loading dock that acts as an informal stage. Above the buried service building, four exhaust stacks emerging from the boiler units are treated as sculptural markers for the site, while other remaining services are kept hidden from view. A centralized mechanical system was designed to include heat recovery units. Ground source heating is used for the security and coffee shop building located in the middle of the courtyard. With its bermed landscape that rises roughly ten feet from the parking lot and existing buildings situated within the courtyard, the walkway manages to provide for a successful visual separation from the existing site conditions.

The design of the perimeter walkway is a key element in the rehabilitation of the site. It links the 11 academic and administrative buildings and is a successful and integral device that provides for an outdoor civic space complete with a variety of hardscaped surfaces, outdoor lighting and brick piers. The piers are noteworthy in their attempt to echo the materiality of the heritage structures with metal, brick and concrete while bringing the campus into a contemporary context. Contrasting the original architecture of the cottages, new porches with glulam wooden structures echo the language of the piers and visually connect with the insertion of the new perimeter walkway device.

Overall, the original material palette–slate, lead-coated copper, red brick, glass and traditional paint colours–have been preserved. Exposed concrete block, steel decking and the insertion of new stair elements have been handled so as to acknowledge the original building components throughout the site. As many of the entrances are quite small, wear and tear from the many students is evident and for this reason, the selection of robust materials is appropriate.

As for the landscape itself, spaces between the buildings and the many visual corridors to the lake have been preserved to maintain the views and experience of the original breezy grounds with its generous plantings of mature trees that include horse chestnut, magnolia, linden, oak, London plane and Kentucky coffee. With buildings sited at a considerable distance from one other, it makes perfect sense that their original purpose was concerned with the salubrity associated with early 20th-century hospital planning. These peculiar qualities of the site are exactly what the architects had intended to preserve. It appears that the campus is showing signs of successful intensification. The new lantern-like Lakeshore Grounds Assembly Hall towards Lakeshore Boulevard by Stephen Teeple as well as the recreation centre built out of the old Powerhouse indicates that the site is developing a stronger urban design itinerary. Currently, there is talk of building a Catholic high school along the bleak path that connects with the original Humber campus.

Charles Hazell envisions a future for the interior of the campus quadrangle to include one level of below-grade parking with a raised commons above, complete with new buildings and additional plantings that will fortify the perimeter walkway. The future for this quadrangle will develop like a city block that is serviced from below. Building elements would stand no higher than five storeys and care would be taken to ensure that view corridors and sun angles would be preserved. With the network of underground services already in place, the inner courtyard
is primed for development. The process of campus development is ongoing, and as Humber grows more comfortable with its new campus, it will continue to experiment and evolve the original and recently reconfigured site plan while incorporating aspects of built and cultural heritage into the future of its architectural vision.

Client: Humber Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning

Architect Team: Charles Hazell, Jill Taylor, Mark Wronski, Wei Chiao, Jason Barkey, Tom Bessai, Sara Blaauw, Leona Dobbie, Mona Elali, Mark Flemminger, AnneMarie Flemming, Joey Giamio, Phil Goodfellow, Jim Graves, Sarah Harris, Tanner Helmer, George Kapelos, Chris Kubbinga, Beata Kurfurst, Christina Luk, Ryan Lupien, Lindsay Reid, Megan Torza, Lea Wiljer, Richard Witt, Robert Young, Liping Zheng, Sonia Zouari

Structural: C.E. Welsh Consulting Inc., Read Jones Christoffersen Ltd., Carruthers & Wallace Limited

Mechanical/Electrical: Crossey Engineering Ltd.

Communications: Ehvert Technology Services

Audio/Video: Novita Design Services

Civil Engineering: Cumming Cockburn Limited

Landscape: Envision–the Hough Group

Traffic Consultant: Read, Voorhees & Associates Ltd.

General Contractors: Aecon Interiors & Renovations, Richard B.A. Ryan, Vanbots Construction Corporation

Restoration Contractors: Clifford Restoration Ltd., Colonial Building Restoration, Semple-Gooder Roofing Limited

Area: 15.6 acres

Budget: $60 million

Completion: 2004