Perimeter Player: Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, Toronto, Ontario
Set alongside a varsity football pitch, the new sports centre presents a glazed façade that offers field-side views from the upper-storey workout areas.
PROJECT Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECTS Patkau Architects + MJMA
TEXT David Steiner
PHOTOS Tom Arban, unless otherwise noted
The best way to watch live sports is in the round. Cheering on all sides generates excitement for players and spectators alike, especially in basketball and volleyball. This was the premise for an invited competition entry by Patkau Architects and MJMA for the University of Toronto’s Goldring Centre, a facility for high-performing athletes. Creating a powerful spectator experience was one of the initial design challenges. The other was less glamorous: providing sufficient space for material handling and garbage truck access to service the Centre and three nearby buildings. Two pragmatic problems, both with a pro-found effect on the resulting structure.
Attend a varsity match in the Field House, as the court is called, and it becomes obvious that setting the two thousand seats on all sides was the right choice. Yet on a tight site, with a six-metre setback along the front and rear, there are limited options for getting FIBA-regulation basketball court dimensions to fit. The design team determined that the only place for this volume was below grade, because then it could reach out to the property line on all four sides (setbacks only apply above ground). “Everything flowed from there,” says Shane O’Neil, an associate at Patkau Architects and one of the lead designers. The team’s big idea was to stack the main rooms: Field House at the bottom; a two-storey tiered fitness and weight room space above; and the little bits at the top—labs, test facilities, offices.
An additional volume at the north end of the site handles materials and trash. If no one pointed out this space, the casual visitor would likely miss it. It has no distinguishing features (other than a big overhead door) and is covered in the same black perforated screen as the rest of the building. Inside, it houses a giant turntable to spin garbage trucks around, so they drive in and out front-first, as mandated by the city. The garage foundations and structure are oversized to accommodate a future 17-storey tower for academic space, currently being designed. The building presses right up against all four property setback lines, with 20 percent of the site area dedicated to the garage.
For the mass of sports fans who trundle down the stairs to reach the court, the entry is unusual—yet exhilarating. It increases the feeling of impending competition, a boon for school spirit. Patkau Architects and MJMA avoid claustrophobia by setting the entry stair in the same volume as the court (the two are separated by a concrete wall). The ceiling is almost 10 metres above the bottom step, and luminous walls, equipped with fluorescent tubes behind corrugated polycarbonate panels, create further drama.
In essence, says MJMA partner Ted Watson, MRAIC, the building section is an “iceberg” . “There’s a lot going on below grade,” he adds. If there is a lot occurring out of sight, beneath the feet of those about to enter the building, there is an equal amount of engineering design hidden above grade. What looks like a simple rectangular building, albeit with a supersized white truss zigzagging across the east façade, is actually a black box wrapped around a very inventive structure. The four-storey volume above the ceiling of the Field House is suspended from six trusses that span the length of the building and bear on the north and south exit stairs. The trusses at the east and west perimeter are four-storeys deep. The interior trusses are one-storey deep—the fourth floor rooms are woven among the structural members; floors two and three hang below. Slender columns punctuating the fitness space are actually suspension rods holding up the floors. They consist of cables encased in circular steel sections, which are filled with concrete for fireproofing.
Engineering the below-grade Field House was no less formidable. Because it’s a big, open subterranean space, it required perimeter walls that are braced to hold back a large quantity of earth. Blackwell Structural Engineers placed a six-metre-wide, post-tensioned con-crete apron around the opening to connect the walls at their tops and resist lateral load from the soil. The apron carries the exterior landscaping within the setbacks on the east and west sides of the site.
Black as a colour choice for cladding seems to have become pervasive in Toronto over the last decade and is often intended to bestow an air of contemporary chic. But in this context, one might initially wonder how that colour and the perforated, corrugated aluminum screen fit into the context of a narrow, leafy university street where Massey College—a Ron Thom brick masterpiece—sits a few buildings to the south and a two-storey, century-old stone construction resides immediately north.
For one thing, the primary relationship is to the university football field, an energetic, colourful design, directly across the street, and completed just seven years ago. Ultimately, black works here because it lets the viewer’s focus settle on the moving bodies, colours and material palette of the Field House below grade—visible through clerestory windows from both the street and rear laneway—and the exercise room above it. As both Watson and O’Neil characterize it, the Centre is a black box with a bright interior. Indeed, the exterior screen is a purely dramatic device: it ties the façades together aesthetically and creates a kind of darkened stage set highlighting the action within. A simple and efficient rainscreen, with corrugated, galvanized metal cladding set 200 millimetres behind, keeps the weather out.
The density and cost of construction in Toronto, nowhere more acute than on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, drove innovation in all aspects of procurement, design, engineering and construction. The university selected the winning design from a shortlist of architects who submitted competition drawings along with a rough estimate of cost. The school then held another competition for a design-builder to commit to a fixed price to construct the winning design and oversee the working drawings produced by Patkau and MJMA. To make the price work, the contractor tendered out the mechanical and electrical subcontracts as their own fixed-price, de-sign-build packages, achieving further value and cost certainty.
As the University of Toronto campus builds up, more is being asked of the architects who work within it: greater coordination of services, innovation in making occupied spaces overlap with service spaces, and accommodation of future growth. Over the last twenty years, both Patkau Architects and MJMA have built portfolios largely around public work, with a nod to sculptural forms and dynamic interior spaces. Goldring expands on this: the character of the building, inside and out, provides the exciting architectural experience the school desired, while fulfilling the weighty demands of the site, the program, the municipality and the future.