Floral Pharmacopeia

PROJECT School of Pharmacy, University of Waterloo, Kitchener, Ontario
ARCHITECTS Hariri Pontarini Architects in joint venture with Robbie/Young + Wright Architects
TEXT Taymoore Balbaa
PHOTOS Ben Rahn and Tom Arban

With a rich floral motif punctuating its faade, a vibrant green and frosted white tone, and the more earthen use of copper and stone, the University of Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy building in downtown Kitchener is distinct and easily remembered by its monolithic presence. Described as an “urban icon” by some, the predominantly glazed building–designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects with Robbie/ Young + Wright Architects–might indeed embody jewel-like qualities that distinguish it from the lingering industrial grittiness of its surroundings. Yet it is the function of this building–a satellite campus of scientific research and education–that provides a lens through which to view its impact on the urban environment. As a stand-alone university building far removed from the main campus, the School of Pharmacy is part of an increasing number of academic faculties and departments enticed, in part, by municipalities looking to infuse new life into downtown cores. In this case, it was the donation of land (a prominent corner site at King and Victoria Streets) and $30 million from the City of Kitchener that provided the principal motivation for the creation of new educational territory detached from greater student life, but which is engaged with the ambitions of a new urban setting.

Though the scenarios surrounding the satellite campus are unique in every case, they find common ground in the need to stake their place, and reach out to host communities in ways both expected and unanticipated. For the City of Kitchener, this site (the western gateway to the downtown core) called for a “landmark building,” a symbol for the creation of a new knowledge hub, and a catalyst for new synergy and investment unfolding in other municipalities that have gone down similar paths. With the School of Pharmacy, the site and surrounding area comprised a considerable void in a central part of Kitchener, one created by the 1997 demolition of the former Goodrich Tire plant. As a major presence in the city for 75 years (employing up to 1,200 people in the 1950s), the departure of this industry and the subsequent erasure of the building left this pocket of the city in need of redefinition and the creation of context in otherwise vacated land. The centrality of the site adds weight to the role of the university as a public institution, and presents an opportunity to establish a solid model for the urban development of the city. Density, massing, height, use of materials, and the provision of public space are concerns that rise above those of the building’s inner workings, and ones that situate the School’s presence within a widened discourse–that of city-building.

Though it is one of several examples of urban infill infusing new life into the streets of Kitchener, the Pharmacy building occupies environs of particularly low density, and could be influential in its creation and occupation of the newly designed individual city block. In this regard, it would be unfair not to consider the original ambitions of the project that see the Pharmacy building as part of an expanded courtyard scheme. This original scheme is comprised of two L-shaped buildings enveloping a semi-public space of cultural and educational flavour. In essence, two more phases of construction are needed to complete the whole. A recently completed satellite building of McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine–also designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects–forms the southern enclosure of this prospective courtyard, and along with a new atrium featuring an educational herbarium, would complete the composition. Suggesting an invigorated synergy between the practices of medicine and pharmacy, and greater involvement of the public in this momentum, the completed vision is clearly one of placemaking potential; a strong gesture in the creation and demarcation of community space. In a pocket of Kitchener characterized by sparse construction and expanses of undefined space, a well-defined courtyard could set a forward-thinking precedent for future growth, and for the further contribution of meaningful depth and interiority to the urban fabric.

The School of Pharmacy (Phase I of IV) is comprised of an eight-storey office tower and a trailing five-storey wing of mainly classrooms and laboratories. Its totemic appearance is enhanced while it awaits the realization of more encompassing ambitions. Still, it is capable of holding its own. Distinguished by its material palette, sculptural massing, and the expressive weight achieved by the overall composition, its presence on a prominent street corner is lively and robust.

The creation and importation of this new academic community has, in some ways, justified a more embellished faade, and a more dramatic distinction between building and context. Though the use of stone and copper grounds the building to the presence of adjacent warehouses, a fully glazed curtain wall adds to an otherworldly feel. Ornate watercolours visible in the faade comprise a narrative on the origins of pharmacy. This documentation of medicinal herbs, vital to earlier remedies, illustrates a visual return to the roots. Given the increasingly synthetic nature of pharmacy, in which mimetic compounds are lab-produced, the message of the visuals is somewhat puzzling. This sense of artificiality is only enhanced by the manner in which the herbs have been diced up and retiled, a “synthetic softening” in which visual warmth is added to an otherwise cold material.

There are numerous ways to make glass a more textured medium: laser-etching, fritting, stone-laminating, and sandblasting, to name a few. In this case, a legacy of stained glass most resembles the technique at hand. In contrast to stained glass, however, this faade does not employ glass as a medium for the filtering of light, but rather, involves a more pronounced distinction between transparency and opacity. The laminations of herbal patterns occupy insulated spandrel panels, resulting in the more fragmented allocation of light and shadow across the entire skin. Allowing for a more calculated mediation of solar heat gain within the building, and by virtue of the highly contrasted glass types, the all-encompassing curtain wall strikes a textured equilibrium. But considering the evocative and uplifting impact that stained glass has had on so many interiors, perhaps there was an opportunity to explore degrees of light transmission through the floral skin and within some of the building’s spaces; a further animation of light, shadow, tone, and colour that the exterior skin seems to promise.

Schedule and budget, particularly scrutinized in the construction of educational buildings, may not have allowed for this level of experimentation or the subsequent recalibration of the building’s mechanical performance to occur. Working within these constraints, however, the School of Pharmacy speaks to the issue of technology and ornamentation. With the aforementioned pressures posing, as is typical, an obstacle to more elaborate expressions, the resolution of the skin represents a well-conceived and artful response to issues of economy. A careful coordination between design, digitization, and prefabrication shows that a lot is possible, even at this scale, and with relatively few authors.

With a pronounced interface between inside and outside, the building demarcates a zone of research and education, and defines a space of incubation. Its functional program and organization must foster a series of new internal relationships, formulated by overlapping interests and symbiotic associations. On the inside, a certain flexibility of space hints at the pedagogical model. Offices, lecture halls, classrooms, common spaces, study rooms, and laboratories
comprise a series of spaces within which experimentation and dialogue will propel the far-reaching ambitions of an academic program and reputation still in the making.

Upon entering, a more limited demographic of students, staff, and faculty are filtered through a secure lobby. For the visitor, an airy caf provides some sense of participation. A guided tour of the building highlights the somewhat sensitive and “off-limits” nature of most of the building, but reveals well-lit and spacious surroundings for its users. Laboratories are clear-span spaces, and give an air of flexibility for the dynamic and evolving research that they allow for. With the academic programs of the building still in their infancy, and the building not yet near capacity, it is difficult to assess the success of the building’s common spaces. However, the generous and light-drenched south corridor that looks upon the future courtyard could aspire to be the most significant space for those less formal but equally important encounters and illuminations.

Beyond its physical threshold, the arrival of the building is being felt in other ways. New students, faculty, and staff are direct participants in the local urban economy. Many seek housing in surrounding neighbourhoods. Public lectures allow for the building’s largest venue to serve as a common ground between education, industry, and public dissemination. For these relationships to be strengthened, the building presents a largely autonomous community that is nonetheless defined by its relationship to the general public. An interesting anecdote that highlights this healthy tension is that of the employment of outside actors to simulate real-life scenes with pharmacy students. A number of scenarios test the students’ ability to respond to various public health situations in what is becoming a widened role for the pharmacist today. Though it may appear trivial, this point illustrates the degree to which the building users’ relationship to the outside world is imported and simulated, all for the sake of education. The architecture has responded to the need to fabricate an identity for the school, to instantaneously create a community where previously there was none. In the end, this identity is perhaps most effective as an iconic architectural presence, afforded a certain freedom of expression because of its “satellite” status. As a solitary figure, the School of Pharmacy strikes an enticing pose, an affirmation of architecture that is sculptural and playful. The memory of Kitchener’s industrial past looms large on site, as old neighbouring structures of brick and timber speak to the resounding scale of the industries that once were. The School of Pharmacy presents a more individual presence, a ship of learning “docked” at the portal of the city. Built with a sensible scale and a sculptural inclination, and with an artful and well-balanced material palette, its physical presence is confidence entrenched, a planting of hardy roots in fertile ground. CA

Taymoore Balbaa is a licensed architect and practitioner. Currently, he serves as an Assistant Professor in Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science.

Client University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy
Architect Team Hariri Pontarini Architects: Siamak Hariri (partner in charge), Michael Boxer, Nelson Lai, Jeff Strauss, Howard Wong, Michael Lafreniere, John Cook, Liming Rao, Bernard Sin, Carolina Benoliel, Maria Espinosa, April Wong, Michael Cogan, Barbara Moss, Mehrdad Tavakkolian, Ramtin Attar, Justin Ford, Paul Kozak. Robbie/Young + Wright Architects: Neil Munro, Donna Johnston, Edward Joseph, Ann Percival, Eric Andersen, Suresh Patel, Chen Zhou, Satomi Tabei, Matthew Belaen.
Structural Halcrow Yolles Partnership Inc.
Mechanical/Civil Stantec Consulting Ltd.
Electrical Crossey Engineering Ltd.
Landscape Claude Cormier Architects Paysagistes Inc.
Contractor Ball Construction Ltd.
Code Hine Reichard Tomlin Inc.
Area 183,000 ft2
Budget $36 M
Completion December 2009