New Circadia

Felted forms, backlit mesh, and large pillows create an atmosphere designed to offer mental and physical respite. Photo by Harry Choi

When we first imagined remaking One Spadina Crescent into a new home for the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, the site was in a state of disuse. Our scheme, developed with NADAAA and a large team of talented consultants, was to reinstate the format of the old Knox Presbyterian Seminary, and integrate a bold new addition within the north court of the original cloister.

During construction, our contractors discovered a problem: the north-facing, basement-level foundations of the old building needed shoring up with a concrete “shelf.” We already knew that a large, long-buried coal bin had to be removed from the old court, but then we found out that all of the contaminated soil surrounding it also needed to be removed. The expedient approach would have been to extract the coal bin and tainted soil, fix the foundation, and cap the whole area with clean fill.

I had something else in mind. After some difficult negotiations with the university and our project team, I managed to align everyone behind an alternative plan: rather than fill the void, we’d transform it into a 700-square-metre concrete “shell” and plan for its future use as an experimental gallery space. After the main phases of the One Spadina project were complete in 2017, we raised the funds to fit out this found space as a proper exhibition area. We opened the Architecture and Design Gallery this past fall.

The modern university evolved from the religious cloister. The new subterranean Architecture and Design Gallery had a brutal, uncanny beauty to it. For the gallery’s inaugural installation, I thought, what about staging a radical play on the cloister-as-cave?

The result is New Circadia (adventures in mental spelunking), an immersive installation that I designed and co-curated with Natalie Fizer and Emily Stevenson of Pillow Culture, NYC. The installation is modelled loosely on Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman’s 1938 Mammoth Cave experiment (the first scientific study of human circadian rhythm) and the Greek abaton (the sequestered ritual-sleeping temple at the origins of the modern hospital). New Circadia is a soft utopia created from CNC-milled plywood, mesh, and 1,850 square metres of grey felt, with integrated sound works, dim circadian lighting, and Oneiroi (a dream recording station)—all fabricated in-house with colleagues at the Daniels Faculty.

On opening night, as I sprawled on the felted cave floor alongside hundreds of people who had shown up to experience New Circadia, I knew we had started something. We know architecture has been inextricably bound up in the urbanization of the planet and a concomitant technological mediation of human subjectivities. Electric lighting, climate-controlled environments, and, more recently, the time-shifting of labor across geographies accelerated by digital communication have changed our very biology, sometimes driving us to exhaustion. New Circadia is an experimental, countervailing space of mental and physical respite.

Architecture typically gives its full attention to the manipulation of space. New Circadia demonstrates that architecture can—and needs to—pay just as much attention to the marking and shaping of time.

The New Circadia installation continues at the Architecture and Design Gallery at One Spadina Crescent, Toronto through the spring.

Richard M. Sommer is dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto.

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