RAIC Journal: Growing Pains
First Prize in English, MAQ Young Architectural Critic Competition
Premier prix anglophone, Concours Jeune Critique MAQ en architecture
A youthful energy permeates the sidewalk running between Yonge-Dundas Square and Gould Street, one block to the north. At the corner, the glossy, faceted volume of Ryerson University’s new Student Learning Centre grabs and holds the attention of students and casual observers alike.
Throughout history, libraries have been sensitively designed, often in a conservative style; the results are rarely so bright and brash. To call the seven-storey, $112-million structure a landmark library may be an oxymoron of sorts—but clearly it was never on Ryerson’s agenda to satisfy the traditional bookworm. With copious amounts of colour, light, attitude and drama, the architectural team of Snøhetta and Zeidler Partnership has breathed life into an adolescent offspring of the contemporary library era.
Books—the defining feature of most libraries—are totally absent from the building. But most visitors don’t even notice. The design indulges short attention spans; one is in turn mesmerized by the wildly fritted white and blue façade panels, nursing a headache after taking the all-yellow elevator, or staring at their smartphone. More importantly, however, the exclusion of books allows the building to fulfill other functions: such as hosting gatherings in an open-concept amphitheatre, facilitating one-on-one digital media instruction, sparking entrepreneurial collaboration and networking, offering access to both academic and career support, and providing a range of casual and group study spaces that feature expansive views of Ryerson’s unique urban setting.
To the world outside of Ryerson University, the building is a shameless act of self-promotion, strategically placed at the campus’s foot on Yonge Street. Unapologetic in its scale, proportions and sharp attitude towards pedestrians, the building walks an extremely fine line between being welcoming and intimidating. At times, the current that draws in visitors feels predatorial in nature, with the mirrored angle of the expansive entry staircase and the canted roofline above curiously forming an open jawline. This relative abruptness largely results from the spatial compromise of wedging a vast, open lobby into an array of stacked programs—one of which is ground-level retail.
Yet the piling-up of such large, dramatic spaces fulfills a critical function. Since Ryerson’s official transition from a polytechnic institute to a university in 1993, the school has undergone massive identity changes that have never been fully visible to the public. Accordingly, Snøhetta was called upon to design not only a building, but an architectural brand.
Looking through the firm’s range of graphic projects (including the visual identity for Oslo’s 2022 Winter Olympics bid and a reimagining of the Norwegian currency), Snøhetta is no stranger to creating promotional material. Consequently, the Student Learning Centre is the campus building that most confidently articulates the present and future vision of Ryerson.
The same fundamental identity changes that necessitate a conspicuous building have had a unique impact on student life. Ryerson is divided into eight faculties, in addition to housing Canada’s largest university-affiliated entrepreneurial start-up incubator. Within these faculties are myriad highly specific, career-oriented programs that impart professionally relevant skill sets to their graduates. While this is a defining feature of the university, it means that the majority of university spaces must be programmed to satisfy a specific academic niche. The resulting lack of inter-departmental circulation is compounded by Ryerson’s urban location with limited real estate, and the fact that the majority of its students are commuters. The university was thus in dire need of a neutral space for students of all backgrounds to congregate. In essence, the jaws that may feel menacing to pedestrians have a different appearance to students—they’re the portal to a communal foyer for the entire school.
The sheer volume of students casually congregating near the building’s entrance makes this fact apparent. And the crowds don’t dispel inside. Nearly every corner, all the way to the top levels, is full during the afternoon, when students have gaps between classes. It makes you wonder where all these students passed their time before the building opened.
Each of the upper floors has a name and configuration that reflects a particular natural theme: The Garden, The Sun, The Beach, and so on. Each level additionally boasts a range of collaborative spaces and digital media resources. Unfortunately, the greatest distinguishing factor between floors remains their differing campy colour schemes. Ranging from jarring to toxic, it feels as if the cheapest avenues were selected to create artificial visual interest. Thankfully, most students see through this, and don’t visit the building expecting to smell the roses or get a tan.
The Student Learning Centre was completed in February 2015. It raises the question: will such vibrant design decisions mature gracefully as Ryerson further expands and integrates itself into Toronto’s downtown core? Ryerson is still a young university, and in many respects, the Student Learning Centre behaves like an insecure teenager trying to wear all the cool brands and follow all the latest trends. While many people look back on their teenage years with chagrin, it’s undeniable that those years also bring greater autonomy to one’s identity and image. Similarly, the Student Learning Centre represents an important phase in Ryerson’s development process, and proves that the school is slowly crafting its own voice in the urban academic landscape.