Humane Capital

Every generation or so–only a little less often than underwear or car styles–the public face of capitalism undergoes a makeover.

The classic look of business, not so long ago, was white shirts and dark suits, nine to five, razor-sharp haircuts, conformity and lifelong company loyalty.

Nowadays–especially in the chic new information industries–it’s dressing down, frequent job-flips, bringing your Labrador Retriever to work, putting in insanely long days and being concerned about the tsunami victims. A few years ago, journalist Nina Munk wrote in Fortune that “impatience and self-confidence define today’s educated young American worker, and everywhere employers are having to adapt…[these workers] are bull-market babies, audacious, presumptuous, entitled–and utterly unprepared for any possibility of recession. Consider the expectations of kids coming out of school right now. This year’s college grads are being treated like star athletes.” Munk could have been describing contemporary young Canadians. Or Chinese. Or Kuwaitis. Or most anyone, anywhere, who’s on the way to a career in managing the global economy.

Where capital leads the way, the architecture of business, including that of business schools, quickly follows. Case in point: the new $110-million Schulich School of Business and Executive Learning Centre at York University in Toronto.

Designed by the Toronto firm of Hariri Pontarini Architects in partnership with Robbie/Young + Wright Architects, the 340,000-square-foot, three-storey complex is a refined expression of a kinder, gentler business culture–a resolute building that nevertheless retires gracefully into its rural, green vignette situated in the midst of suburban sprawl.

The spiritual heart of the Schulich is a busy and sociable forum called the CIBC Marketplace, where young people in jeans and sweat tops gaze intently at flowcharts glowing on their laptop screens, or huddle over coffee in intense knots to puzzle over some textbook problem. Spangling out from this central hall are corridors lined with classrooms of fourteen types, from sizable lecture rooms to small, comfortable cells for class breakouts and group thinking.

One arm, devoted to faculty and administrative offices, takes the form of a forest path, meandering away from the central core into the distance. This interior ensemble of finely ordered social and secluded spaces is wrapped in an undulating, expressive curtain wall composed of horizontal bands of cut limestone, heavy-gauge copper and ample glass doors and windows opening toward the former farmland setting of York University. The material palette, inside and out, is as continuous and peacefully harmonized as the students are widely various, and representative of every colour, tribe and nation.

To get a sense of the forces and philosophical attitudes that stand behind the rambling, genteel Schulich School and the adjoining executive centre tower, I talked with Siamak Hariri, its lead designer, in the downtown Toronto office of Hariri Pontarini Architects.

“We studied over 60 schools, and visited 20 of them,” Mr. Hariri told me. “We found that a great business school has two things. It brings people together so that they bump into one another all the time. So if you had a space you could sit in long enough, you could know who’s in the building that day. Professors can’t dodge the space. You get to ask difficult questions of the professor, you get to form relationships that will last through a lifetime. All of those things are the makings of a good business school. The Marketplace is the central place of gathering.”

At the other extreme, you have perfect, inspiring spaces that are quiet. You know, the kind of carrel that PhD students used to have in the basement. It was a terrible space, but the concept was that you were away from everyone. We wanted to take that kind of space out of the basement and make it inspiring.” The result was a gradation of interior spaces between what Mr. Hariri calls “red”–hot, lively, full of traffic–and “blue,” or secluded and intimate. “Red was the Kasbah, blue was this cone of silence. Everything in the project was orchestrated in red, magenta or purple and blue, and that was how the plan was distributed.”

For the architect, this distribution reflects the way cities organize themselves–hence, the essential urbanism he believes is embodied in the York project.

“You get a place that is a hotbed of activity–the beachfront or whatever. Things vie to be close to the beach. Or they go completely away from it.” But even as it embodies the social texturing of urban form, the Schulich also keeps true to peculiar rhythms of landscape openings, streetscapes and architectural massings that Mr. Hariri believes have always characterized great university buildings of the past.

“In terms of architecture, it was important to us to create a quiet sense of urbanity. The building sits quietly on the land. It wasn’t about being an object, and it wasn’t about being a box. At the same time it does good things such as street building, making the campus. When we started, we took this three-story slice and decided to hold all the edges of the slice, then carve meaningful spaces out of that slice. Then we teased the edges constantly. There’s a lot of transparency at the edge, a good sense of scale. We wanted you to feel comfortable walking around it, so we studied what the building does as it comes around, how to make it as porous as possible at that edge. There’s the right amount of repetition, but not too much–there’s the right amount of teasing of the eye, but not to the point where it gets wacky.”

While it certainly stays true to the modesty of buildings in older university environments–and sets an important soft-Modernist precedent on a campus characterized by harder, sharp-angled architectural gestures–the Schulich architecture also provides a stage for the distinctive kind of teaching that goes on in business schools everywhere.

“There had to be a central aisle in the classrooms, because we found that the professors like to pace. They like to be among the students, then pace back.” Classrooms tend to take the form of little amphitheatres, to facilitate maximum theatricality. “There is a lot more showmanship than in, say, a medical school or philosophy school. Some of the teachers really try to make it interesting–throw basketballs around, be quick on their feet. The teaching is much more flamboyant, and much more diverse. If you look at what they’re trying to teach, it needs to grab your attention in a new way. If you’re the cool professor, you’ve got a hot way of teaching.”

Throwing basketballs to grab attention, being spectacular, packaging hard information in vivid wrappers–the Schulich teaching style sounds a lot like contemporary consumer culture. But in interviews with students, Hariri Pontarini found the school has other, more physically serious attractions.

“They find the architecture has a certain humane quality, and takes a more human approach to the idea of capitalism. They like coming to the building because it is non-aggressive. It’s not about being brutally “Look, Ma! No hands!” It’s like people you meet and like, who are outwardly soft and inwardly solid. But the school itself is strong. It has fantastic diversity ethnically, so one of our concerns was how to make the building comfortable for people from all walks of life. It couldn’t look too American.”

Making the architecture seem indigenous–decidedly in and of its place–was the challenge addressed by Mr. Hariri in the exterior fabric. “It had to be stone, taut and horizontal, in a curtain wall that was very, very light, with glass and stone constantly playing off each other. Then copper became this kind of stitching. We were definitely thinking we wanted a person from Indonesia or China or Germany to feel comfortable here. How do you do that? By speaking to the sense of quiet, by trying to say a lot of things in a subtle, quiet way. You come into this building and you feel some
thing–it’s the connection to the landscape, it’s the light, it’s the soft materiality, the humaneness of the building, the way one piece of stone meets another–and you catch it.”

John Bentley Mays is an architecture critic and writes regularly for The Globe and Mail.


Client: York University

Architect Team: Hariri Pontarini Architects: Siamak Hariri, Michael Boxer, Sara Tetlow, Bernard Sin, Donald Chong, David Pontarini, Philip Toms, John Cook, Flavio Trevisan, Vanessa Hattoum, Barbara Fogarasi, Claudio Santon, Robert Smyth, Margarete Krawecka. Robbie/Young + Wright Architects: Jamie Wright, Neil Munro, Yew Thong Leong, Ian McLachlin, Rodel Misa, Paul Harris, Tony Diodati, Edward Joseph, Michael McBride, Andrew Smyth, Steven Donnelly, Virgiliu Petre, Suresh Patel, Sara Blaauw, Steve Nightengale, Stephanie Van Es, Tara Takahashi, Vince Gallo, Marta Belcourt

Structural: Carruthers and Wallace Consulting Engineers

Mechanical: Smith & Andersen Consulting Engineers

Electrical: Mulvey + Banani International

Landscape: The MBTW Group and Janet Rosenberg + Associates

Construction Manager: Vanbots Construction Corporation

Area: 340,000 ft2

Budget: $110 million

Completion: September 2003

Photography: Steven Evans unless noted