Big Pond: Ponderosa Commons, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Universities are sometimes described as giant daycare centres for bright but otherwise unemployable youth, and the lack of urban amenities on most suburban campuses does little to dispel that notion. The University of British Columbia’s new Ponderosa Commons complex—designed for teaching, research, art-making, lounging, eating, living and sleeping—is conceived as something of a full-service community. The multi-phase project, designed by KPMB Architects in joint venture with HCMA Architecture + Design, is in many ways a test case for the myths and realities about creating a vibrant community. “The Pond,” as it’s affectionately known, is designed to provide not just more student shelter but also more safety, social animation and connection. As such, the project presents not just a paradigm for a campus, but a microcosm of a city.
Led by Shirley Blumberg at KPMB Architects and Karen Marler at HCMA Architecture + Design, the dual design teams have brought to fruition the two phases of what is arguably the most ambitiously urbane project on campus as the university winds up its eighth year of a 10-year transformation plan. For UBC’s chief architect, Gerry McGeough, Ponderosa Commons is in some ways a distillation of the decade’s work. When he implemented the current master plan, he faced the daunting challenge of a campus built on a peninsula segregated from seven square kilometres of parkland. McGeough has ramped up the calibre of individual buildings at UBC, enriching the campus with striking projects like the 2012 Pharmaceutical Sciences building, by Saucier + Perrotte with HCMA. Yet the campus still felt unsafe at night in parts, and projected little sense of cohesion or density: walking from one UBC building to another has mostly felt like negotiating your way through an upscale suburb—which, in essence, the university had become.
The programming, massing and density of Ponderosa Commons responds to that shortcoming. The complex is a major part of the university’s evolution to a 24/7, year-round community, with evening vitality and summer activity—for social, financial and safety reasons. As such, the complex is more about urban energy than architectural form. It is not iconic, not keychain-friendly; a walk around and inside of it leaves little lasting impression on the retina of its overall form. What you do remember is the spontaneous human choreography: stand in its third-floor student lounge of the Phase 1 building and behold the stage before you on a dusky winter evening: students, mostly solitary, criss-crossing the mall and lawn and roadway below you. From that vantage point, thw spontaneous pedestrian movement reads like the opening act of a reality-based theatre performance. This is not the haphazard campus of 20 years ago, which turned into a ghost town at sundown.
Phase 1 of Ponderosa Commons was completed in 2013, with some community mutterings of concern about whether the project signaled a future of high-rises engulfing the verdant campus—“high-rise” being a relative term here on this mostly low-rise campus. But Phase 1 was not about simplistically stacking classrooms or sleeping quarters for maximum density and cost savings; it focused on a strategic—almost eclectic—mix of classrooms, dorm rooms, faculty departments, research centres, grocers, art studios and a pizza parlour. It has pathways between and inside of buildings, and the buildings themselves feature a varied massing that evokes the jogged silhouette of an organically evolved cityscape.
These concepts have been around since the 1961 publication of Jane Jacob’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, but has wended its way slowly across North American urban centres—and even more slowly, or not at all, on university campuses. In large part, notes McGeough, that’s due to the iron-clad grip of the original Jeffersonian ideal for the built landscape of higher education, embodied at Monticello: removed, in a faraway land, away from the distractions of the workaday world. “The issue we’ve inherited is that many North American campuses are single-use,” observes McGeough. “The notion was that to keep a healthy democracy, you kept students at least five miles away from industry and downtown.” That notion, robustly debunked by deleterious election outcomes at all levels of government, has now been put out to pasture.
So, times have changed. “Universities are in the knowledge-creation industry, so it’s about creating collisions between different players—in the sciences, arts, psychology,” says McGeough. And so Ponderosa Commons is configured as a mixed-use, multi-discipline, highly animated complex. The mere presence of a pizza parlour helps. But the physical design configuration enhances the sense of urban variegation. The walk inside, between and around the buildings is also a spatially rich experience, enhanced by the design team’s careful orchestration of exterior bridge, cantilevered stairways, walkways and underpasses.
Animation is also generated by the strategic use of glazing. From the subgrade lounge at the southeast corner of Phase 2, students can look up through what is essentially a giant clerestory, and flag down any passing friend they might spot walking outside, as I watched one student do. At the buidling’s opposite end, the downward slope brings this lower level above grade, and the design team has taken that opportunity to transform that wall into a fully glazed visual and literal connection to the outdoors.
That said, Phase 2 of the Pond is more inward-looking, a tripartite U-shaped massing comprised mostly of housing units (called Cedar House), with a faculty lounge, offices and a large student lounge and study area at ground level. That’s because this second project phase is devoted more to the pragmatics of providing classrooms, conference rooms, and beds for students that convert into hotel rooms in the summer. Or as McGeough puts it: “less on choreography and relationship outcomes, and more on needs assessment”—an inverted Maslow hierarchy, if you will.
The three wings of Phase 2 wrap around the site’s towering Ponderosa Pine, the project’s namesake. It’s virtuous that the university has chosen to showcase rather than raze the tree. Still, positioned between the building’s three wings, with a wooden picket fence around the base of its trunk, it evokes a huge captive beast in a too-small pen.
Throughout Ponderosa Commons, the landscaping underwhelms. The landscape architecture is by Hapa Collaborative, a talented and highly respected firm with an impressive portfolio of work. But in this project, missed opportunities abound. Most students spend chunks of their days in rectilinear classrooms, writing or tapping notes on rectangular papers or keyboards . Landscape architecture offers the possibility of escaping that orthogonal rigidity, in counterpoint to human-made forms. Yet around Ponderosa Commons, the landscape reads as a rigid geometric matrix. Between the buildings, saplings stand in an orthogonal grid, like a very small tree farm. The foliage between the wings of Phase 2 is less rigid, but generic and uniform, dominated by knee-level bracken and bland shrubbery. Spatially rich on the inside, this project cries out for a more dramatically varied landscape outside.
To be sure, the upper-floor student residences—whose inhabitants are selected by lottery—offer spectacular ocean and mountain views. The lower-level spaces, such as Phase 1’s third-floor student lounge, offer an exalted view of the human activity outside: this lounge, in theatrical terms, is the mezzanine, the best vantage point to take in that choreography of pedestrians criss-crossing the mall. So indulgent is the view that an American art-history student told me that her decision to study at this particular university was prompted by her earlier tour of Ponderosa Commons—this view, these amenities, the people, this lounge.
And yet for all my half-dozen research trips to the Phase 1 second-floor lounge, I rarely saw more than a handful of students in it, and sometimes none. On my last visit, I asked the lounge’s sole occupant, a third-year engineering student tapping intensely into his laptop, why he chose to hang out in this particular space. “Because there’s usually nobody else here and I can have the place to myself.”
As long as the summer hotel revenues across the way can help keep the lights on, maybe that’s okay: we don’t have to force-feed sociability on everyone. The campus in general, and Ponderosa Commons in particular, feels much safer and livelier than the dodgy-at-dusk community of 10 years ago. It is not a comprehensive community; it’s a matrix that has what McGeough calls “nodes of community.” The Pond isn’t a cure-all for human malaise, but it can help the finding of one’s tribe, or one’s solitude, for the handful of summer days or academic years where this place is home. As McGeough says, “We all need a sense of place.”