Learning Experience

University of Toronto Graduate House, Toronto, Ontario

Morphosis Inc./Teeple Architects Inc. in joint venture

It’s hard to find a Toronto building in recent memory that has caused more controversy–and brought more attention to contemporary architecture–than the new Graduate House on the main campus of the University of Toronto. To the person on the street, it’s a building that elicits extreme reactions: people love it or hate it. Among architects, the debate may be less visceral and more tempered, but opinion is equally divided. Graduate House has become symbolic of what is both good and bad about contemporary architecture.

I recently attended a dinner of scholars celebrating research innovation on the U of T campus. Academics were being praised for their work in a variety of fields, and in this setting there was little debate about the value of scholarship or its place at the University. When the subject of Graduate House came up, the mood changed. Most present scorned the building, dismissing it as ugly or out of place. As the only architect present, and also an academic, I found myself in an awkward position. While there are many things about this building that can be criticized, I was compelled to come to its defence. What is the role of the university, I asked? Is it not the place of experimentation? Must the scholarship of architecture be set apart from other disciplines? Surely one of the responsibilities of the university is to provoke and challenge. Could Graduate House not be viewed in this context?

In the end my argument won grudging acceptance. A few present were prepared to admit that architectural innovation had a rightful place on campus alongside the work of their disciplines. Others were not convinced. The evening left me feeling uneasy. Has contemporary society focused on questions of taste and propriety, ignoring the virtues of imagination and innovation? Is the architecture of ideas so out of step with mainstream thought?

There is no question that Graduate House is a problematic building, but that’s part of its appeal. It’s strong, gutsy and aggressive and provokes us to reconsider urban life. Designed by Los Angeles-based Morphosis Architects in collaboration with Teeple Architects of Toronto, Graduate House is a dark grey and silver, concrete and metal, one-block-long complex that marks the western limit of the U of T campus and that represents a new phase in campus planning and building.

This project contains within it the complexities of making architecture at the beginning of the 21st century. The players represent disparate agendas: a client, the U of T, balancing pragmatic needs for student housing with institutional ambitions to be a place of scholarship and progressive ideas; an urban neighbourhood, uneasy about being so close to this burgeoning institution; a city, eager to assuage community opponents while wishing to accommodate a major landowner in its core; and an architectural team with a tough position on contemporary form and building.

While Morphosis principal Thom Mayne and Stephen Teeple are the architects jointly credited for the design of Graduate House, the building’s exterior bears the clear imprint of Mayne’s philosophical stance toward the built world. For Mayne, the senior of the two collaborators, the objective of architecture is to interpret the present “authentically,” without regression to historical precedent or form (see Morphosis/Connected Isolation, Academy Editions, 1992). Writing with his former partner Michael Rotondi in the foreword to a 1989 monograph on their work, Mayne described the evolution of their architecture: “The work was more and more about conflicts, questioning the normative and clashing with the expected.” Rejecting current trends to romanticize the past, Mayne prefers to recognize the complexities of contemporary urban life, declaring that we are in fact “frightened” of our world. Using this as his starting point, Mayne pursues an architecture expressive of this condition.

Echoes of Mayne’s wilfulness and deliberateness toward architecture can be seen in Teeple’s own work. His 1989 Kitchener City Hall competition entry–which was among the finalists–explored “an architecture of tension.” While rooted in precedent, Teeple’s competition entry sought to create a Modern architecture “reflective of both current technology and social and political conditions.” The scheme for Kitchener reflects plan shifts and layering of materials not unlike those evident in Mayne’s earlier works, formal moves that are clear antecedents to Graduate House.

Both Teeple and Mayne’s ambitions found a receptive ear at the U of T. Within the past ten years, the University has embarked on an ambitious academic and building program, seeking to attract top scholars from around the world. That architecture and design should be part of this agenda is in large part due to Larry Wayne Richards, since January 1997 Dean of the University’s architecture school. In late 1997 the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA) was renamed the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, or al&d, and has since launched new Masters programs in architecture, landscape, and urban design.

Richards’ arrival coincided with the U of T’s review of the process of commissioning University architecture. According to Janice Oliver, Assistant Vice President Operations and Services, a 1997 report sought ways to bring design issues to the fore on campus. Concurrently, initial expressions of interest were being solicited from architects for Graduate House. Overseeing the process was an architectural advisory group that included Dean Richards, representatives of University operations, administration, students and an external advisor, Brian Carter, Chair of the University of Michigan’s School of Architecture. This process yielded a short list of eight firms, which was then reduced to three. Following a design charrette, Mayne and Teeple were selected.

For Richards, Graduate House was an opportunity to push ideas about design as an intellectual activity appropriate to the University mandate. Mayne and Teeple’s association with U of T became “a happy convergence.” Recalling the process, Richards reported that the jury was “excited and persuaded” by the project. In the spring of 1997 the University announced its choice.

The challenge to Morphosis and Teeple was the reconciliation of site planning with building program, addressing context and staying within strict financial parameters. Through a user review process, the housing program was set: a “low service” residential building for individual students arranged in suites, each providing a small kitchen and two bathrooms. A tight budget matched an equally tight program. A total of 475 students were to be housed in single-occupancy bedrooms of 120 to 140 square feet each, and the cost per bed–including all furnishings, construction costs and fees–was to be $38,000 or less. Amenities and services for this community of scholars were also to be provided.

Urban design was similarly constrained. Graduate House sits at the northeast corner of Spadina Avenue and Harbord Street, between university precinct and urban neighbourhood. Spadina is a wide boulevard improved within the past five years and rejuvenated through the reinstatement of a light rail transit system and streetscape improvements, and forms the de facto western boundary of the campus. To the north and west, low-scale Victorian and Edwardian row houses characteristic of Toronto stretch to the city’s historic boundary. These are heterogeneous neighbourhoods, accommodating urban professionals and working class families in owner-occupied dwellings interspersed with a mix of rental apartments and rooming houses.

The University Athletic Centre, or “Fort Jock” as nicknamed by students, sits immediately across Harbord Street to the south. Monolithic and brutalist, the AC is a vestige of 1960s and ’70s university expansion. With its sloping overscaled red metal roof and unmodulated concrete faade, the AC makes little gesture to the community.

To ad
dress these conditions and to align with other buildings along Spadina, the City required that Graduate House be set back, with a courtyard opening onto Spadina to provide accessible public outdoor space. In deference to the neighbourhood, building heights were to decrease from south to north. A setback plaza or “notch” at the southwest corner was mandated to provide a forecourt to Graduate House and reinforce the Spadina-Harbord corner’s importance as a gateway to the University.

The building is organized in four blocks surrounding the City-mandated courtyard accessible from Spadina. Entrance to Graduate House is from Harbord Street and the height of the residential blocks corresponds to City requirements: four storeys on the north, seven storeys along Spadina, and ten storeys along the laneway on the eastern flank of the site, thus reducing the building’s apparent mass when seen from the west. The density and configuration is uncharacteristic for Toronto, and the courtyard is more reminiscent of European models than North American ones.

The straightforward assertions of the organization are rendered ambiguous by the architects’ gestures of pulling out and twisting building mass, tearing off and separating the building’s skin from its body. Thus, at the Spadina-Harbord corner, the southwest quadrant of the complex inflects slightly to the north, and is pulled away from the remainder of the seven-storey mass. This break is made apparent by the stark contrast of the courtyard cut clad in ochre stucco sitting in opposition to the dark grey exterior precast concrete wall. Similar shearing and delamination occur along the south and west faades. On the south, this is signalled by an exposed free-standing concrete frame, which carries on its surface the outer skin of the building. The delamination and ambiguity of the perimeter are most acute on the building’s east side. A corrugated clear finished aluminum screen stands in front of the actual wall that encloses the building’s residential units. The architects’ agenda of differentiation of parts and material is completed on the north–the lowest of the three wings–where walls are clad in metal panels. This elevation is capped with an oversized pitched roof, a gesture to the domestic scale of neighbours across the street.

Speaking to the complexities of urban life, the building presents an array of materials and forms. The most public faade along Spadina Avenue consists of a dark grey precast concrete panel system with projecting concrete shelves that run continuously along the length of the faade. Narrow windows sit within this system of horizontal bands and the overall effect is sombre and austere. In opposition to the weight, solidity and defensiveness of the public face, the ephemeral metal screen extends along the building’s east and wraps the southern corner.

Dominating the street faade and extending practically the entire length of the elevation is an oversized “pop” cornice, cantilevered halfway across Harbord Street. The cornice spells out the University’s name etched in thermal glass. The cantilever transforms from glass to steel at its end, with the last letter of the sign–a big O–framed and suspended over the street. With this move, the tension inherent in the architectural gesture is transformed from figurative to literal.

The many voices of the building’s exterior faces are stilled and unified on the interior courtyard. Calm, placid, and serene by comparison, the inner court steps down and is faced in white metal panels, creating an interior oasis. A perimeter pool with hovering planes accentuates this ethereal, otherworldly order.

The public areas within the building are given a very limited palette and exude a similar serenity. The layering and delamination in evidence on the exterior are given a reprise within, with concrete exposed to reveal the building’s structural order. Student apartments are compact, and student rooms modest. As on the exterior, the arrangement is dense, minimal and spare. Mayne and Teeple grouped residential units into arrangements of suites containing four bedrooms organized around a central kitchen, living room and entryway. In the east and north blocks, each suite is on two storeys, with entry, kitchen and living on one floor, and bedrooms either one level below or above. This skip-stop elevator arrangement, reminiscent of early modernist housing experimentation, provides students with a high degree of personal privacy while providing shared spaces within units.

The rigour of the exterior design has created in many rooms–particularly in the western block–narrow windows. The cool concrete palette of the interior and limited natural lighting–constrained in some cases by the window size and in others by the presence of the exterior metal screen wall–have been a source of student complaints. In contrast, however, the public corridors open up in certain places to create breathtaking city-wide rooftop vistas.

At the urban scale, the City’s desire to have a building step back from the street and continue the urban wall only half succeeds. The building broods darkly over the street. The tilted cornice looms, and the reach over Harbord Street with the suspended O creates just the kind of tension Mayne reveres, but it’s a tension many would rather scurry from. Traditional row housing and aggressive contemporary urban is a difficult mix, and reconciliation has been complicated by inherent town-gown tensions and specific miscommunications during the project’s development. The complex consultative process that worked for most of the project’s planning was not adhered to at one crucial moment: a shorter cornice, part of the project’s original scheme, was extended, with City approval but without neighbourhood input. The transgressive element–the overscaled cornice so cherished by Mayne and so much a part of his philosophy–became a cause clbre within the community, which projected onto it imagined horrors. As much as possible was done to placate fears, but for local residents’ associations, the building’s aura was set. The City’s willingness to give away this part of the public realm forever was perhaps irresponsible; from a distance, however, the cornice is stunning. The hovering O clearly marks the campus entry, and has become a distinctive new moment in the city.

Programmatically, matching the ideals of the University with the practicalities of a very tight budget was difficult. In the Morphosis-Teeple mix, it is acknowledged that Teeple worked hard to create interior public spaces that had definition, coherence and even grace. Affording privacy by pushing the typology to skip-stop floors and through units, campus proximity and decent housing in rooms costing less than the going rate for an illegal basement flat are in themselves significant accomplishments. Graduate student life is transient and not focused on one’s room. The community extends into the university: seminar, studio, carrel or laboratory. In this regard Graduate House exceeds the University’s–and I suspect the students’–expectations of good housing.

Still, a number of moves at Graduate House provoke and puzzle. Given the very tight budget–the construction cost for the building was $17.8 million, or approximately $96 per square foot–why devote design energy to elements that come across as extraneous and redundant, notably the cornice and double skin exterior wall systems? With our climate and culture, why choose dark grey as the exterior colour? And why adopt a defensive stance toward the city through slit windows and a concrete faade? Greater subtlety is called for when translating ideas from the temperate Southern California climate to Ontario’s extremes, from the intensity underlying U.S. urban life to Canadian propriety, and from small-scale housing to urban block.

In the end, and setting aside the extremes of public opinion about the building, Graduate House must be reconciled with much of what is being built today. Architectural explorations continue to be compromised in the name of good taste and public standards, with little room given to experimentation o
r even basic innovation. While Graduate House–with its dark faade and looming cornice–may not be the most polite building, it is certainly not ill-mannered. It is clearly consistent with and expressive of the creative, thought-provoking minds and hands of its designers. And therein lies a dilemma for many of us.

It’s not a question of loving or hating Graduate House, but rather of how to acknowledge the place of architectural experimentation that this building represents. While Graduate House may be a tough building to love, it conforms to a belief system inherent in Modern architecture: the power of innovation. It may be an unpopular addition to the city streetscape, but its ambitions and intentions–as well as the University’s–deserve to be recognized and applauded.

So much is put on the shoulders of a university education: scholarship, citizenship, and a cultural experience. Experimentation in architecture cannot be viewed as separate from this milieu. As such it should not be restrained and must be encouraged. Viewed as an experiment, then, Graduate House succeeds in making a case for new forms of housing and urban density. The University has learned from Graduate House. Other student housing projects are in the works for the campus and on its perimeter. These works are exploring typology and form in the same spirit as Graduate House. The balancing of agendas–community, academic, fiscal and political–continues. We look forward to the results of these experiments.

George Thomas Kapelos is Associate Professor of Architecture at Ryerson University and a practicing architect in Toronto.

Client: University of Toronto

Architect team: Thom Mayne (principal), Kim Groves (project architect), David Rindlaub, Stephen Slaughter, Brandon Welling, Felix Cheng, Ben Damron, Dave Grant, Ryan Harper, Joey Jones, Fabian Kremkus, Silvia Kuhle, Ung Joo, Scott Lee, Julia Morais, Ulrike Nemeth, David Plotkin, Tarek Qaddumi, Ivan Redi, Robyn Sambo, Jose Valeros, Sandrine Wellens, Oliver Winkler (Morphosis); Stephen Teeple (principal), Chris Radigan (project architect), Bernard Jin, Rob Knight, Kael Opie, Matt Smith, Tom Arban, Tania Bortolotto, Marc Downing, Paul Hammond, Grazyna Krezel, Madeleine Moore, Adolfo Spaleta, Cathy Velikov (Teeple Architects Inc.)

Structural: Yolles Partnership Inc.

Mechanical: Keen Engineering

Electrical: Carinci Burt Rogers

Landscape: Janet Rosenberg and Associates

Interiors: Morphosis Inc./Teeple Architects Inc.

Cost consultants: Helyar & Associates

Elevator: H.H. Angus

Contractor: Axor Construction Canada (completed by BFC Buildings)

Area: 23,000 m2

Budget: $17.8 million

Completion: Fall 2000

Photography: Tom Arban