Heart of the Matter

TEXT Elsa Lam
PHOTO Shai Gil

Since 2009, Toronto firm Gow Hastings Architects has been subtly renovating Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science–opening up a workshop space here, reconfiguring graduate offices there. Their latest intervention is more dramatic. A new gallery transforms the main lobby, extending a bright white welcome to students and visitors alike.

The Paul H. Cocker Gallery replaces a storage room, once used for student submissions and as a staging area for pin-ups, but pushes beyond the previous room’s boundaries. Intervening in Ron Thom’s Brutalist lobby, dominated by concrete beams and an angular grand staircase, was a challenge. “There are a lot of geometries going on in this space,” says principal Valerie Gow. Associate Jim Burkitt continues, “We thought, let’s make a gallery that feels as though it’s inserted into all of these exposed orders.”

To distinguish the gallery from the original building, Gow Hastings chose bold contemporary materials: red felt walls to form a deep portal, oversized pivoting glass doors for a frictionless entry, and crisp white walls and floors for a sanctuary-like feel. The white floors–made from 50 cm x 300 cm Italian porcelain tiles that score high for cleanability–extend out into the lobby. A curved back wall also sets the space apart. It’s faceted into long, straight sections to allow for standard wall-mounted exhibitions. Overhead, lines of adjustable track lights are interspersed with hefty steel bars for installations with heavy hanging elements.

The thoughtfulness of the intervention extends around its perimeter. A slot window along the side of the gallery provides sneak peeks inside and out. The curved back wall pushes into a graduate studio; here, the red felt wraps around to form a tack-friendly surface to facilitate pin-ups. To articulate the gallery as a single continuous block, it’s separated from the studio doors by glass sidelights that pull back slightly from the door jambs. A stainless steel baseboard rings the volume’s recessed bottom edge. These details, along with the craftsmanship that went into the construction–the felt wall “was treated like a fine piece of millwork,” says Burkitt–make the backside of the gallery as special as its front.

In October, the gallery officially opened with an exhibition of the Canadian Architect photographic archives, donated to the university in 2009. In curating the exhibition, Ryerson communications and digital archives specialist Prachi Khandekar and graduate student David Campbell sought to balance between drawing attention to the photographs and showcasing the space itself. “The display is pared down,” explains Khandekar. To pull visitors in, they applied vinyl floor transfers with quotes from the magazine’s past editors. Says Khandekar, “We made a daring attempt to keep the display free of interactive elements, using bold typography instead to engage the viewer.”

The gallery’s completing element–a digitally fabricated wall designed through a student competition–will slot beside the gallery entrance. Prototypes are underway for a lantern-like structure fashioned from backlit Corian panels, routed into intricate patterns on their concealed side. Once it’s in place, the glowing wall will add a final light touch to the school’s new heart. CA