Plane Geometry

PROJECT Communication, Culture & Information Technology building, university of toronto at mississauga, ontario

ARCHITECT Saucier + Perrotte architectes

TEXT Nova Tayona

PHOTOS marc cramer

At first, I think I have arrived at the Communication, Culture & Information Technology building (CCIT) by architects Saucier + Perrotte from the wrong direction. Because it is located on the University of Toronto’s Mississauga (UTM) campus, I’ve come by car. From the campus entrance gates, Outer Circle Road leads to a parking lot behind CCIT. Approached this way, the building’s east elevation is a question that begs for discovery: where is the entrance? A concrete wall retaining an open area of green grass ends where a folded black metal volume begins; solidity then becomes transparency via a three-storey slice of glass, providing a double-layered glimpse of green beyond. But still no door. Further steps take me to an enclosed walkway whose walls are defined with patterned translucent glass and for a few seconds, exterior sound is muffled, but comes into sharp focus as I pass through an opening in the glazing. The suddenness of an unexpected sound; an unseen bird’s song is surprisingly crisp and clear. Entered this way, CCIT’s inner garden is like discovering a secret. This is until I realize it is mostly transparent: the courtyard is bounded by two glazed walls to the north and west, using the exterior wall of UTM’s South Building as a solid edge. Entering this outdoor room, all sense of the parking lot has been left behind.

Although increasingly more common, a university campus in the middle of suburbia is still a bit of an anomaly. In a landscape of big-box stores, strip malls, subdivisions new and old, it’s strange to find this self-contained place composed of a collection of buildings that are frequently urban in scale and aesthetic. The so-called “remote campus” is just that. Though singular in function as a place of learning, there is a strong rhythm and pulse from the faculty and students as they interact academically and socially within this built and natural environment.

Into this cultural and physical landscape, Saucier + Perrotte have inserted a new element that pays careful attention to adjacencies, creating new spaces for interaction and movement. U of T’s Mississauga campus is an entity that is growing, with $140 million in capital projects either nearing completion or about to begin, including the current construction of a new library and athletics centre. An unfortunate consequence of any fast-paced development–suburban or urban–is that the landscape becomes dotted with disparate buildings with little reference–direct or indirect–to each other. What is interesting is that as a faculty, CCIT is dedicated to the study of the art and science of human communication–how it builds knowledge and creates culture. The same can be said about the relationship of buildings to each other. The architects have read the site well, as CCIT enters into a dialogue with its surroundings, reinterpreting and reinventing the site as found. At once, it is solid and transparent, an edge and an epicentre, a path and a place.

The most compelling faade faces west into a treed park. Like the First Nations Garden Pavilion in Montreal and the Perimeter Institute at the University of Waterloo, CCIT is a line between two worlds. With an access road in between, the park’s dense edge of greenery and the wall of glazing are similar in height, reminiscent of a well proportioned city street. Glazed boxes push through the smooth surface, asserting the programmed spaces housed inside. As a tight reflective composition, its varying degrees of transparency create a new edge that on a clear autumn day is wistfully layered and ephemeral. On both sides of the glass, a linear path is created for students moving between the library and main campus. From the inside, framing the greenery beyond, this glazed wall truly speaks about the building being on the edge of a forest. Integrated within the glazing system close to the ground plane, in long horizontal mirrors I catch a reflection of myself against a backdrop of student movement. Intended or not, this wall is like a vast collage–nature with a line of human action running through it.

The multi-layered landscape is a recurring theme in the work of Saucier + Perrotte, figuring most recently in buildings such as McGill’s School of Music and Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute. As another university building, CCIT is a piece within a continuum of research that places the Montreal firm both inside and outside the tradition of Canadian modern architecture. While many of our country’s small offices focus on creating a site-specific sense of place via the private realm of the house, Saucier + Perrotte’s public and cultural buildings explore paysage–French for “landscape”–as something that is both specific and abstract.

The building’s ground floor may primarily function as a connecting link but there is also a sense of arrival as you walk through it. The spaces housing the lecture theatre, E-Gallery and other functions are much stronger elements when viewed from the interior rather than the exterior; the spatial volumes are much better defined than what the building’s exterior would suggest. And because of the monochromatic detailing, these spaces read as volumes inserted into and hovering over the atrium, and together with other elements such as a shifting floor plane, create dramatic contrasts in scale and intimacy. Within the atrium’s open area are places of exposure and retreat–qualities always admired in great public rooms. In front of the theatre, the concrete floor is patterned with criss-crossing beams of light streaming through the vertical glass wall. An organic counterpoint to all of this angular light is the shadowed silhouette of London Plane trees from the garden beyond. At their base, glazed walls meet a folded ground plane, a continuous landscape that sweeps through the building extending to the rest of the campus.

It is this kind of spatial richness that adds to the experience of a place, be it a house, public space, or city. Saucier + Perrotte may not intend their collection of projects to be all about “the room,” but they understand its archetypal principles well. Moving between spaces, built or natural, a constant is the ground beneath our feet. Rising and falling, it is a dynamic plane with buildings carved into and placed on top of it. The French verb froisser means “to crease,” and this device appears often in the firm’s work, reflecting the complexities of cultural and physical landscapes.

On an ever-expanding campus, CCIT converses with the site by re-presenting what was already there: preserved mature London Plane trees, a park, the hard edge of an existing building. At the same time, something to appreciate is how the building engages what is not yet there. At CCIT’s “back” elevation, the parking lot may one day become another structure. Thus, the wall of concrete I first encountered not only encloses underground parking, but also retains a folding patch of green space that to Gilles Saucier is “a clear position” towards what may come. This landscaped ground plane could be the beginning of another campus room, and in this sense, is a conversation waiting to happen.

Nova Tayona is an intern architect working at Ian MacDonald Architect Inc. in Toronto.

Client University of Toronto at Mississauga

Architect team Gilles Saucier, Andr Perrotte, Alain Desforges, Andrew Butler, Thomas Balaban, Anna Bendix, Nathalie Cloutier, Dominique Dumais, ric Dupras, Louis-Philippe Frappier, Darrell de Grandmont, Louis-Charles Lasnier, Christine Levine, Jean-Franois Mathieu, Claudio Nunez, Benjamin Rankin, Pierre-Alexandre Rhaume, Samantha Schneider

Structural Quinn Dressel

Mechanical/Electrical Rybka, Smith and Ginsler

Landscape S
aucier + Perrotte Architectes

Interiors Saucier + Perrotte Architectes

Acoustics Aercoustics Engineering

Contractor Ellis Don

Area 10,800 m2

Budget: $34 M

Completion September 2004