Open Arms

PROJECT Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peterborough, Peterborough, Ontario
ARCHITECT Teeple Architects Inc.
TEXT David Steiner

Over the past 110 years, the Sisters of St. Joseph convent have been selling off land, and slowly paring back their facility to accommodate a shrinking membership. A few years ago they sold the original chapel, dormitories and administration space to finance the construction of a new building that would consolidate all their activities. Many of the nuns have spent much of their lives outside Canada, living in difficult conditions. They wanted a new facility to provide a measure of comfort, to be energy-efficient (the historical buildings were drafty and impossible to heat), and to accommodate a group of about 80 women with an average age of 80.

Sister Sandra, involved throughout the entire process, was not concerned about the aesthetics or form of the building so long as the Sisters’ mandate was met. They were fully willing to give up the historical home of their convent: a cluster of handsome and stout masonry buildings–imposing specimens from a previous and more bustling era of the Church. Designed by Teeple Architects, the new building is on a patch of land on the north end of the site where the nuns used to grow vegetables and herbs. The new facility sits in an open space on the side of a hill, removed from the former buildings by a row of mature trees.

Bernard Jin, the project architect from Teeple Architects, described the idea behind the design as lightweight ribbons resting above a heavy stone base. Bright-white cement panel cladding hangs like armour over the top half of the building’s walls. The gleaming white panels emphasize the building’s sculptural form, making it stand out sharply from the surrounding greenery. From a distance, it appears like a jumble of cedar soffits, white walls and black-framed windows. Here and there, small canopies appear, their underbellies sheathed in cedar.

The building’s overall form is comprised of two long arms clambering down the site. Each arm holds the individual living quarters. Where the arms converge is the building’s communal space. Protruding from the southern end is the chapel, the focal point of the facility and its most prominent feature. Teeple Architects demonstrate through their work that conceptual design ideas are a big driver of their practice. Here, they seem to pursue some ideas to the extreme. For example, on the east end of the north housing arm, the upper roof wraps down and around the limestone face of the building, completely obscuring a two-storey strip of window.

As you move closer to the convent, its details become more apparent, such as the shiplap pattern of the white panels and the rhythm of the bay windows beside narrow punched openings. Up close, the building resolves itself into a rough assembly of materials. Between the cedar soffit and stone wall is a 50-millimetre recess stuffed with black netting. Flashing appears everywhere: leading into the building are low garden walls clad in limestone with coping made from bent metal flashing.

Inside, the building switches gears to a more spiritual mode. The hallways of the housing wings, lit by clerestory light, gently bend around towards a double-height communal gathering space, then funnel out to the main entrance of the facility. From the exterior, the clerestory windows are not noticeable. Consequently, the natural light illuminating the hallways from above is unexpected, making the procession through them more dramatic. Teeple Architects have taken great care to craft ceilings that evoke an idea of flowing white ribbons. Drywall bulkheads hang down throughout, jutting out over hallways and creating partial ceilings. At other times, diffuse sunlight filters in from windows tucked behind the bulkheads. For example, in the chapel, a bulkhead hangs in front of the south wall undulating around the room, transforming itself as it becomes the wall of the balcony area above. Entering through a single vertical window, natural light strikes the bulkhead from behind, making it appear to glow.

The chapel space is flexible and welcoming. The room can be oriented in three directions: the full-height coloured-glass wall to the west, the blank north wall, or the glazed south wall. Regardless of the orientation, the view is only of the sky and sloping embankment rising around the chapel on two sides. “The idea was that the chapel would be an outcropping,” says Jin, “surrounded and ending in nature.” Teeple Architects designed the religious furniture–an altar, lectern, fountain and table. Portable and light, they are constructed from white Corian–a common countertop material–folded so expertly, they appear to be made of hardened ribbon.

Teeple Architects’ initial proposal submitted during a limited competition organized by the Sisters, was a predominantly cloistered scheme. It was rejected because it closed the nuns off from their surroundings. They were interested in a building that opened out to the environment, expressing their concept of worship and devotion. As a result, the architects went back and revised the scheme to what was ultimately constructed: two building strips that flow over the terrain and open out with views of Peterborough. A courtyard still remains and is accessible from both the first and second floor–along with a sheltered garden.

It is a bit unexpected that a group of older nuns would choose an architect whose body of work–and material palette– is so contemporary. In the end, it was their logical process that led them to an open-minded solution: find examples of excellent architecture in the city (Peterborough has a good crop of quality Modern buildings, with Ron Thom’s original Trent University as the gold standard) and see who was involved in its production (Teeple Architects have already built four institutional buildings in Peterborough). By working with the architects to understand the function and their intentions–to basically design a retirement home with a spiritual focus–the Sisters of St. Joseph put great faith in their architect to produce a new convent that met their needs. In return, the Sisters ultimately received a supremely satisfying building. CA

David Steiner is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

Client Corporation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Diocese of Peterborough
Architect Team Stephen Teeple, Bernard Jin, Chris Radigan, Mark Baechler, Graham Baxter, Francesco Martire, Luc Bouliane, Edward Lee
Structural CPE Structural Consultants Limited
Electrical/Mechanical Enermodal Engineering Ltd.
Interiors Teeple Architects Inc.
Landscape Teeple Architects with Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg
Environmental Building/LEED Enermodal Engineering Ltd.
Contractor EllisDon Corporation
AREA 5,245 m2
Budget Withheld
Completion March 2009