Perimeter Twist

PROJECT Stephen Hawking Centre at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Waterloo, Ontario
ARCHITECT Teeple Architects Inc.
TEXT David Theodore
 PHOTOS Scott Norsworthy unless otherwise noted

In order to celebrate the new Stephen Hawking Centre at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, some staff members made a short video Christmas card animating the addition as if it were a spaceship lifting off. It’s a clever tease, because it draws attention to the Centre’s jaunty metal-clad façades, and also plays up the architects’ decision to visually separate the outside of the new addition from the old.

Toronto-based Teeple Architects designed this four-storey addition, which adds 55,000 square feet of space to the existing 65,000-square-foot facility, curving around the short end of the old building like a pair of wraparound sunglasses. It features creased and folded walls, ribbons of horizontal glazing, a bold cantilever, and slender V-shaped concrete columns. But there’s a rub: to say that the addition resembles a spaceship is to imply that it looks out of place, even alien. So while it’s a forthright, fun and welcoming design, it also highlights a paradox Canadian architects face today–namely, the task of making buildings both stand out and fit in. 

Perimeter Institute began life in Waterloo, Ontario in 1999, and officially opened in a renovated post office in 2001. This non-profit, independent research organization might have the most ambitious mission of any organization anywhere: “to forge new, mind-bending ideas about the ultimate nature of our universe, from space and time to matter and forces.” Its operations were instigated by a $100-million personal gift from local entrepreneur and Research in Motion founder Mike Lazadaris. In 2004, Perimeter got its first purpose-built facility, moving into a building that garnered Montreal-based architects Saucier + Perrotte a Governor General’s Medal. The institute flanks Silver Lake in Waterloo Park, and shares a parking lot with another architectural icon, Patkau Architects’ Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery.

In 2008, theoretical physicist Neil Turok, plucked from the University of Cambridge, became director. He quickly undertook an ambitious plan to triple the number of researchers and to enlarge the institute’s training and outreach programs. For instance, under Turok they’ve added a Masters-level program known as Perimeter Scholars International, which is conducted in collaboration with the nearby University of Waterloo. Astoundingly, a mere five years after the first building opened, Perimeter was ready to double in size. The addition’s budget came through a public-private partnership involving the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, Ontario’s Ministry of Research and Innovation, and private donations, including continuing support from Lazaridis.

Perimeter chose Teeple Architects from among a small shortlist. “Stephen Teeple was the only one who seemed to have listened to the director’s requests,” says longtime faculty member Robert Myers. The crucial instruction, notes Teeple, was that the new and the old together form “one institute, one culture,” and not a campus of pavilions that might divide the institute into cliques. In terms of atmosphere, Turok asked the architect “to design the optimal environment for the human mind to conceive of the universe.” Underlying Turok’s requests was a premise that Teeple clearly grasped: in today’s competitive academic market, attracting and maintaining excellent scholars and students has upped the demand for signature exteriors and showcase interiors. 

The design comes down to earth, programmatically, with a mix of research and administration offices, breakout areas, places for casual interaction and a ground-floor cafeteria. Physicists love chalk–it’s handy for drawing and erasing mathematical notation–so blackboards abound. 

Turok had strong opinions on how the building should work: a layout that encouraged informal interaction, he thought, would lead to more formal collaborations between specialists. For instance, he wanted to move the café from its old haunt on the fourth floor down near the ground-floor entrance. The Black Hole Bistro now gives direct access to a deck beside the reflecting pool, providing welcome respite out in the sun. The bistro is split onto two levels: public events such as jazz concerts and movie screenings take place downstairs, while upstairs provides a bar and food service support for special occasions–fundraising dinners, conferences and the like–and also serves as casual study space.

 Teeple’s team cleverly doubled the building’s size but increased the footprint only by a fifth. The building abuts the edge of the flood plain, although an upper storey is allowed to cantilever over. “It’s about effectively finding space in constrained areas,” says Teeple. The tight planning left no room for a grand staircase, and in any event, security considerations restrict public access above the ground floor. Instead, the designers constructed two user-friendly fire stairs. The Cyclic Stair, which goes up to the top-floor classrooms, is especially flamboyant, full of twists and folds that seek to express the mathematics behind theoretical physics. 

The new floor plan swirls horizontally and vertically around two trapezoidal courtyards. One contains a second-floor herb garden connected to the upper level of the café, and the other pulls sunbeams down to the reflecting pool on the building’s north side. The window arrangement around the light wells provides sightlines across and through the building, again meant to encourage interaction, but it is also good for the subtle pressure of peer surveillance, which Turok felt would goad researchers towards greater productivity. Facing the lake, the designers grouped together all of the floor-to-ceiling windows of the research offices, and then outlined the ensemble in a ribbon of metal. This exterior is meant to suggest a collective team of researchers, in contrast to the play of individual cantilevered boxes that characterizes the earlier building’s offices. 

Keeping with the theme of collaboration, Teeple’s team clustered research offices of different sizes together. The idea is that a senior faculty member leaving her office might bump into graduate students sharing a three- or four-person office next door, or a visiting scholar sharing a two-person office with a postdoctoral researcher just down the hall. More formally, the building’s characteristic creases are generated from funnel-shaped floor plans meant to increase collegiality. And Teeple found a prominent place for the Sky Room, a generous lounge to be used by anyone, anytime. The building can’t force people to interact informally, but its planning offers numerous places for serendipitous meetings to occur.

The architecture much less gracefully supports accessibility for people with disabilities. Halfway between the floors sit intimate “interaction areas” topped by green roofs. Unfortunately, they are reached by small flights of stairs; there are wheelchair lifts, but they look retrofitted, and are not integrated into the main promenade. These stairs create a rift between walkers and wheelchair users, an unsettling predicament in a building named in honour of wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking.

In terms of overall access, the addition also changes Perimeter’s urban logic. Saucier + Perrotte had optimistically placed the front entrance facing the city, turning the building’s back on its parking lot, shared with the Patkaus’ Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery. Teeple’s addition has now become the main public entrance for the ensemble. Pragma
tically, this change improves the movement of staff and visitors from the parking lot. At the same time, it makes for a more suburban arrival sequence, because the front door is set back in a sea of cars. 

The buildings that share the parking lot together make a mini-exhibition of three strong trends in contemporary architecture. The 1993 Clay and Glass Gallery concentrates on tectonic clarity, on the effects that come from a display of construction techniques and structure. The first Perimeter building is more concerned with perception, with how flat sheets of materials slip and slide vertically and horizontally to compose walls, floors, rooms and views. Teeple’s addition emphasizes dynamic spatial effects. The comparison between the three is rich and rewarding. In the interests of architecture, it would have been exciting to build the addition as a separate pavilion rather than an attached structure that sometimes masks, sometimes overwhelms its predecessor. But institutional growth–rather than architecture–is the real driver of the project.

The new addition acknowledges the old by respectful deployment of recessed bands of glass in some places, and bold contrasts in others. Teeple decided to treat the 2004 structure as a historic building, creating a skylit atrium between the old exterior walls and the new addition’s circulation spine. The new is self-consciously “fun,” while the old is “Zen.” The new is angular, the old rectilinear; the new is compressed, the old expansive. The balance is not even, however. Where the two meet, the old is used as a foil to activate the new, especially in the entrance hall. Overhead, the circulation spine weaves, jostles and juts into the gap between the new office floors and the black metal of the former exterior wall. Near the top, a cantilevered meeting room comes within a hand’s length of the old parapet. “There’s some pretty subtle engineering here that makes it all work,” says Teeple. 

Perhaps Teeple’s enthusiastic grasp of Turok’s vision compounded something similar to the “new chef” problem familiar in restaurant design. When the new chef arrives, the old restaurant–however perfect for the last chef–suddenly seems inadequate. We are used to rapid change in restaurant interiors, but it makes one pause to see change overwhelm this major institution before the ink is dry on the awards lavished on the “old” building. 

Yet if rapid institutional change complicates the architect’s role, Teeple found in it a source of inspiration. The Stephen Hawking Centre is tightly organized, carefully built, and consistently detailed–even the classroom lecterns and front reception desk follow the crease-and-fold motif. The board-formed concrete and angled plasterboard joints invite visitors to appreciate craftsmanship, while navigating the warren of offices never becomes confusing. The building is seeking LEED Silver accreditation, and would meet the requirements for Gold but for a lack of daylight in the main lecture hall. All in all, it’s a compelling and boisterous design that sets Perimeter Institute in a new orbit. CA

David Theodore is a doctoral candidate in the History of Architecture, Medicine and Science at Harvard University.

Client Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics
Architect Team Stephen Teeple, Chris Radigan, Bernard Jin, William Elsworthy, Martin Inglis Baron, Myles Craig, Rob Cheung, Maryam Mohajer, Jan Kroman, Mike Sargent, Mark Baechler, Neeraj Bhatia
Structural CPE Structural Consultants
Mechanical Cobalt Engineering (now called Integral)
Electrical Mulvey & Banani International Inc.
Landscape Scott Torrance Landscape Architect Inc.
Interiors Teeple Architects Inc.
Contractor Ball Construction Ltd.
Acoustics State of the Art Acoustik
Civil MTE
LEED Enermodal Engineering
Area 55,000 ft2
Budget $25.6 M
Completion December 2011