Nun’s Sense: Residence for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario
Kenneth Frampton reviews Shim-Sutcliffe's undulating building on the edge of Toronto's Don Valley.
PROJECT Residence for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Shim-Sutcliffe Architects Inc.
TEXT Kenneth Frampton
PHOTOS James Dow, Bob Gundu and Positive Imaging
There is a crucial moment in the maturation of any practice when the size and the genre of the commissions suddenly shift. This usually constitutes an opportunity to amplify a particular approach at a larger scale. At the same time, this shift presents a syntactical and ideological challenge to the architect, since such a change usually involves a move from the domestic to the public scale. And it often entails passing from an asymmetrical to a symmetrical parti.
For Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, this change in scale was facilitated by a transitional work, namely, the Integral House of 2009; a commission which combined an amply proportioned private house with a diminutive public function, that is, a salon for the accommodation of chamber concerts (see CA, February 2010). Shim-Sutcliffe invariably based their earlier works on asymmetrical compositions often elaborated so as to permit their realization as an orthogonal syntax in brick and timber. This dialectic between asymmetrical organization and rectilinear detailing would be consistently maintained in their domestic work up to the Integral House, where it would be decisively departed from, in part because of the size and complexity of the brief and in part because of the formal preferences of a mathematician client, who decided that his residence should, to some degree, incorporate the curves of differential calculus. The architects’ ultimate response was to opt for an amoeboid plan which, due to a steeply sloping site, steps down over five floors as the body of the house descends into a ravine.
With their design for the Sisters of St. Joseph Residence in Toronto, completed mid-year 2013, the architects were confronted with a more overtly public platform. It was also a much larger structure–in fact, a nursing home for 58 elderly nuns. Even so, it had a number of things in common with the Integral House, above all, the plasticity of the overall form and the intimate relationship established with the self-same river valley system–adjacent to one of those largely invisible ravines that run imperceptibly through the centre of Toronto. Like the Integral House, this “undulating” care facility has been discreetly influenced by the work of Alvar Aalto–primarily by his Baker Dormitory realized within the MIT campus along the Charles River in 1948. Like Baker Dorm, the Sisters of St. Joseph home has a serpentine plan and is treated in a different way on its two sides. It departs from the Aalto model in other respects, most notably perhaps in the continual curving of its footprint in plan and the shallowness of the slab, a condition largely imposed by the narrowness of the site.
The ground floor accommodates the principal common spaces of the building, including the lobby, the elevator stack and a common lounge with direct access to the chapel. The circulation at this level culminates in the main dining room, the curved glazed front of which offers views over the Don Valley. The chapel is isolated from the main body of the building as a crystalline form standing free as a dematerialized double-height glass volume. The illusory weightlessness of this form is emphasized by its uncanny suspension above a reflecting pool.
The upper floors are laid out as sequences of single suites, each one equipped with a full bath or walk-in shower. Conceived as an integral part of a comprehensive sustainable provision for the entire building, each unit also has its own heat pump and means of temperature control. In addition, the building is extensively equipped with solar panels, rain collection systems, geothermal heating and cooling, and is topped off by a green roof and a permeable finish to the parking lot. Each individual room has an operable window affording the possibility of direct contact with the outdoors, thereby overriding the systematic feedback system. The significant common amenity on the second floor is a sitting room, extending through the deeper part of the slab with a mezzanine link connection to the double-height volume of the chapel.
Overall, the undulating plan of the slab effectively creates three segments, two of which are single-loaded corridors serving self-contained suites. These wings are separated by a deeper segment that is largely occupied by common space on the ground and second floors; on the top two floors, the central segment is taken up by a short sequence of single suites and amenity spaces lining both sides of a central corridor. This ingenious arrangement necessitated setting back the top two floors of the building, yielding a roof terrace adjacent to the chapel.
As we have already remarked, the overall mass of the form is treated differently on its opposing flanks. The northern aspect of the undulating slab is handled as a three-storey continuity in brick, suspended above full-height glazing, and pierced at intervals by horizontally proportioned windows. The southern aspect, mostly lined with single-loaded corridors, is shielded from the sun by a vertical brise-soleil. In effect, the building appears on one side as a three-storey brick face, whereas on the other side the same three floors are unified by the brise-soleil, articulated into two tiers: a two-storey segment in rusted Corten steel sits on top of a single-storey segment in powder-coated green aluminum fins. In certain sequences, the green finish overlaps the Corten fins, creating a syncopated effect in relation to the curving form of the slab. The counterpoint between rusted steel and green pigment emphasizes the dynamic movement of the south façade in a vibrantly tactile manner. This continuous relief is related at the material level to the thin, aerodynamically profiled Corten steel canopy cantilevering over the main entrance.
The completely glazed chapel on the garden side of the building is airily framed out in steel with vertical steel tubes and a cantilevered wood-clad balcony projecting out into the main volume. This assembly is largely dematerialized, save for the reflectivity of the glass and the treatment of the interior with its full-height vertical white oak louvres, suspended light fittings, bespoke chairs designed by the architects, and various accoutrements of a discreetly liturgical character. One has to say that the overall effect is somehow surprisingly Swedish circa 1950. It is an ambience that could hardly be more removed from the traditional representation of the sacred in monasteries. Despite the honorific pendant light fittings and the indispensable sacred reliquaries with which the chapel has been furnished, there is nonetheless a latent secular spirituality–perhaps expressed most succinctly by the reflecting pool upon which the chapel appears to float.
There nonetheless remains, in contrast to the lucidity, something of a tectonic non-sequitur in the freestanding concrete columns that articulate the space of the ground floor: there appears to be neither a manifest columnar rhythm, nor sufficient articulation of the soffit of the slab which would be capable of resolving the ambiguity of the concrete superstructure. Shim-Sutcliffe’s passage from small to large commissions and from timber and brick to reinforced concrete seems to have entailed a move away from the articulate tectonic of their timber-framed architecture. It is most likely that in their future work, this passage from orthogonal to organic, from small to large, and from wood to concrete, will be carried off by the architects with more resolved plastic invention and with their consummate skill. CA
Kenneth Frampton is the Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
Client Sisters of Saint Joseph of Toronto | Architect Team Brigitte Shim, Howard Sutcliffe, James Chavel, Amy Lin, Andrew Hart, Olga Pushkar, Anne Miller, Carla Munoz, Jordan Winters, Amber Foo, Eiri Ota | Structural Blackwell Structural Engineers | Mechanical/Electrical Crossey Engineering Ltd. | Building Envelope R.A. Heintges & Associates | Sustainability Dr. Ted Kesik | Heritage ERA Architects | Landscape NAK Design Group | Contractor Eastern Construction | Area 90,000 ft2 | Budget Withheld | Completion April 2013