Canadian Architect

Feature

Ryerson Rises

Located on Toronto’s bustling Yonge Street, Snøhetta’s boldly graphic light-filled building funnels students into its dynamic interior spaces.

September 1, 2015
by Elsa Lam

Located at the bustling corner of Yonge and Gould Streets, the Student Learning Centre gives an iconic presence to Ryerson University. Photo by Doublespace Photography

Located at the bustling corner of Yonge and Gould Streets, the Student Learning Centre gives an iconic presence to Ryerson University. Photo by Doublespace Photography

PROJECT Ryerson University Student Learning Centre, Toronto, Ontario

ARCHITECTS Snøhetta (Executive Architect) with Zeidler Partnership Architects

TEXT Elsa Lam

PHOTOS Lorne Bridgeman unless otherwise noted

It’s grand opening day at the Ryerson University Student Learning Centre and the building is buzzing with activity. Each of the eight floors is packed with students, who fill seats and study rooms and perch on ramps and benches.

They aren’t here for the opening ceremony though, which is largely a VIP event. They’re here to use the building, the way it was intended for them. As the university website explains, this newly opened edifice “provides Ryerson students with an outstanding environment to study, collaborate and discover.” Or as I heard one student describe it to a friend in an appreciative tone, “it’s just, like, a giant building to hang out in.”

Designed by Norwegian firm Snøhetta with Zeidler Partnership Architects of Toronto, the Student Learning Centre takes trends in 21st-century learning to heart, and blends them with the look of a hip Silicon Valley workplace. Attached to the University’s existing central library, the building is a conglomeration of informal learning areas. There’s a café on the ground floor, a digital tech lab with 3D printers on the third, resources for students with learning disabilities on the fourth, and throughout the remaining floor plates, many large and small spaces dedicated to reading, working and group learning.

The fourth-floor learning support centre includes service counters as well as small offices for private tutoring

The fourth-floor learning support centre includes service counters as well as small offices for private tutoring

The template for the floors is relatively simple. Large open reading rooms sprawl alongside the facility’s generously windowed façades. Towards the middle of the floor plates are smaller enclosed rooms—group study areas, classrooms and offices. Within this basic parti, each floor has a distinct layout and its own particular character. A theme colour—from apple green to sunrise orange—adds vibrancy to each level. The configuration of the centralrooms, and the area occupied by them, varies depending on specific programmatic needs. The intimately scaled seventh floor (warm grey) is riddled with a dense array of graduate study rooms, with glass walls fritted to recall fog rising from a forest floor. The top floor, by contrast (glacier blue), has an especially tall ceiling, angling up and over a grand reading space towards panoramic city views.

“Every floor is different, so you always find unique little spaces,” explains architect Craig Dykers, principal of Snøhetta. “You’re also confronted with a different need to navigate, so your mind is always having to work.” But because the floor plates are relatively small, he adds, “It’s impossible to get lost in this building.”

Areas of clear glass offer views of the downtown cityscape

Areas of clear glass offer views of the downtown cityscape

Around the perimeter, the glass façade is etched with a pattern of rounded geometric shapes that cut glare, while allowing ample natural light to enter in pleasing, dappled patterns. Clear portions frame viewsof the city, doubling as popular spots for selfies. Areas with all-clear glass are rare, but on the top level, one such area faces straight up Yonge Street, offering a dramatic vista.

The fifth floor features study rooms encased in translucent red panels

The fifth floor features study rooms encased in translucent red panels

On several floors, colour-tinted glass encloses study rooms and classrooms. Rather than resulting in the fun-house effect one might expect, the rooms have normal white illumination when their lights are turned on. That’s achieved by balancing light levels inside and outside the rooms—a trick that Dykers figured out when designing a bus stop in Lysaker, Norway.

A view of the sixth floor, nicknamed “the Beach” for its semi-circular cascade of tiered seating.

A view of the sixth floor, nicknamed “the Beach” for its semi-circular cascade of tiered seating.

The most unique floor is the completely open-plan sixth level, nicknamed “the Beach.” Long, low benches extend diagonally across the space, terracing down towards a patch of blue carpet. A continuous ramp weaves the terraces together, making the landscape fully accessible. Overhead, standard fluorescent tubes, arranged in concentric circles, are visible from the street at night, recalling the iconic Sam the Record Man sign—a giant neon LP, much beloved by Torontonians—that adorned the building formerly occupying the site.

A view of the sixth floor, nicknamed “the Beach” for its semi-circular cascade of tiered seating.

A view of the sixth floor, nicknamed “the Beach” for its semi-circular cascade of tiered seating.

Patio and beanbag chairs are strewn throughout the Beach, though many prefer to simply stake out a place on the floor. A few students have shown up in swimsuits, and breakdancers periodically claim an upper corner for an impromptu jam session. This is a space with the vibrancy of a city square—a wonderful and unlikely achievement for an indoor room.

The large, open spaces throughout the building are made possible partially by skewing the structural system at a 45-degree angle to the rectilinear shape of the plan. This means that columns are pushed towards the edges of rooms, freeing space along the long diagonal spans of the grid. Some columns end up in the middle of spaces, but because they are not part of an insistent grid, they appear as isolated features. “In the heroic days of Modernism, the module needed to be clearly understood,” says Dykers. The designers here chose to take an opposite approach, masking the module rather than revealing it.

The triple-height atrium is ringed with bleacher-like seating ideal for people-watching with a coffee and a laptop.

The triple-height atrium is ringed with bleacher-like seating, ideal for people-watching with a coffee and a laptop.

Quiet floors alternate with louder floors, and—with the reminder of a few taped-up signs—the division between the two types of spaces is well respected. But even the loud floors, despite many animated conversations, aren’t ear-shattering. “Acoustics are the unsung hero of architecture,” says Dykers. Absorbent surfaces have been incorporated throughout, in cleverly integrated ways. Floors and walls are covered with sound-absorbent felt wool, and a stucco-like acoustic finish is applied to the slab ceilings. On the ground floor, acoustic material is stuffed behind origami-like aluminum ceiling tiles. The loudest sound in the three-storey main lobby, which hums with conversation, is the click of high-heeled shoes on the wooden feature stair.

The building welcomes students with outdoor seating and a striking blue canopy clad with orgami-like folded metal tiles. Photo by Doublespace Photography.

The building welcomes students with outdoor seating and a striking blue canopy clad with orgami-like folded metal tiles. Photo by Doublespace Photography.

Under University President Sheldon Levy, Ryerson has been on a kick to integrate its campus with its busy downtown location, and this building is no exception. Retail spaces, a future revenue source, have been tucked along the ground façade facing Yonge Street. To integrate with the street, the sidewalk folds up from the corner, transitioning into a wide grand staircase that leads to the lobby. An obligatory double-door vestibule protects against winter winds, and while the opening isn’t the full width of the building as suggested in early study models—the flow of movement is smooth and intuitive. Cerulean blue tiles wrap from the lobby ceiling, extending out to the street and up the outside corner of the building, creating a sense of invitation from the street to the Learning Centre.

The welcome is extended not only to students, but to curious visitors from the city at large. Currently, there are no security checkpoints where you need to flash student ID, as is the case in several other big city university libraries. (However, you do need an access card to enter rooms that contain digital projectors or other equipment.) Hopefully, it can remain this way—security creates pinch points, and detracts from the feeling of freedom and openness at the heart of this building.

A geometric pattern enlivens the fritted glass façade enclosing the south and west sides of the buiding. Opaque, translucent and transparent areas are calibrated to balance light, views and heat gain.

A geometric pattern enlivens the fritted glass façade enclosing the south and west sides of the buiding. Opaque, translucent and transparent
areas are calibrated to balance light, views and heat gain.

Qualms about the Ryerson Student Learning Centre are minor. At street level, the retail spaces appear disappointingly generic—they could have been more inspired, bringing the building’s exuberant energy to this commercial stretch of Yonge Street. At the basement level, the building is one wall away from connecting to the Dundas subway station, a link that will hopefully materialize in the future. Inside, the elevators are often overloaded—although with time, students may discover the twin fire stairs, which have been gussied up with supergraphics and slot windows. The grand wood stair in the lobby will wear down quickly, particularly with traffic from salt-encrusted winter boots. Students will grow fond of favourite spaces, and be disappointed when others claim them by arriving earlier in the day. Such is the price of popularity.

The largely open-plan top floor is bathed in natural light. Photo by Doublespace Photography.

The largely open-plan top floor is bathed in natural light. Photo by Doublespace Photography.

Dykers is hopeful that soon, the architects’ role in the project will recede as the building takes on a life of its own: “Within a short period of time, people won’t remember the architects’ names. They’ll just think of it as their building—they’ll drive by and say, that’s our Learning Centre. That’s when it’s a good building.” Judging by its instant appeal to Ryerson’s students, this moment will arrive soon, if it hasn’t already.

CLIENT Ryerson University | ARCHITECT TEAM Snøhetta—Craig Dykers, Michael Cotton, Jon Kontuly, Samuel Brissette, Michael Loverich, Dennis Rijkhoff, Anne-Rachel Schiffmann. Zeidler Partnership—Vaidila Banelis, Mike Smith, Richard Johnson, Mitsuru Delisle, Joan Jan, Oksana Verby. | STRUCTURAL CH2M Hill (formerly Halcrow Yolles) | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Crossey Engineering | CIVIL RV Anderson Ltd. | LANDSCAPE Snøhetta with executive landscape architect Ferris Associates| INTERIORS Snøhetta| CONTRACTOR EllisDon | LEED CEL Gruen | LIGHTING Consullux Lighting Consultants / Crossey Engineering Ltd. | A/V Novita | WAYFINDING Entro | ACOUSTICS Aercoustics | CODE LRI Engineerings Inc. | HARDWARE Upper Canada Hardware Inc. | AREA 14,200 M2 BUDGET $112 M | COMPLETION February 2015