Seductive Ambiguity

Shore and Moffat Library and Eric Arthur Gallery,

University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario

Kohn Shnier Architects

It’s a well-established irony that many schools of architecture are housed in less than ideal environments. While some schools benefited from Canada’s post-war university expansion and secured funds for new buildings (the first purpose-built facilities for architecture programs were UBC’s Lasserre Building and the University of Manitoba’s Russell Building, both dating from the late 1950s), others have been left to make the best of second-hand homes vacated by other programs. However, the academic rejuvenation of many schools in recent years (see CA May 1998) has seen a parallel effort to improve their physical environments.

Canada’s oldest school of architecture, at the University of Toronto, has been housed since 1961 at 230 College Street, erstwhile home of the School of Dental Surgery. In the fall of 1998, U of T launched a new three-and-a-half year Master of Architecture program, replacing the previous five-year Bachelor’s, and the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture was transformed into the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. It has since initiated two additional graduate programs: a three-year Master of Landscape Architecture and a two-year Master of Urban Design, with plans to launch a Ph.D. program in the near future.

The sweeping changes to the U of T program, implemented under the direction of Dean Larry Wayne Richards, brought with them a demand for the transformation of the school’s physical facilities. These had to address both operational and symbolic issues; not only would they need to support the day-to-day functioning of new and developing programs, but should also establish a greater public presence for the institution. And while funds were not available for the construction of a new, purpose-built facility, the University, matching a significant fundraising effort, financed much-needed renovations to the existing building.

A master plan was prepared by Barry Sampson, Assistant Dean, Facilities Planning and Design, whose firm, Baird Sampson Neuert Architects, also undertook a major reorganization of the school’s administrative offices on the building’s main floor. The master plan defined a wide range of renovations, including improvements to studio spaces, computer facilities, accessibility, an improved front entrance, the relocation and enhancement of the library and the development of a public gallery.

The last three items–by far the most public of the renovations–are the work of Kohn Shnier Architects, who designed the library/ gallery/entry improvements as one conceptually complete package to be constructed in phases. Last November, work was completed on the gallery and the reading room portion of the library, an earlier phase of which opened in 1998, with work at the entry to follow.

Named in honour of Eric Ross Arthur, a key figure in the history of the school and in Canadian architecture (see page 22), the gallery completes a sinuous spatial sequence initiated by the first phase of the Shore and Moffat Library (named in honour of a firm responsible for the design of many early modern buildings in Toronto, and major donors to the project). Previously housed in the basement, the library was relocated to the second floor, with an indirect entry sequence partly visible from the building’s main College Street entrance. At the top of a flight of stairs on axis with the entrance, a view into a glowing anteroom reveals what John Shnier describes as “a seductive place of ambiguous destination.” A few steps toward the enigmatic glow reveal a tone-on-tone sign announcing The Shore and Moffat Library, but the approach remains indirect, the stair veering to the left before redirecting visitors into a double-height anteroom with a canted wall of indeterminate colour–neither green nor yellow but something in between. The space is at once intimate and monumental.

Within the anteroom, attention is drawn from the canted, yellow-green north wall to the library entrance to the east, whose porthole window allows a glimpse into the space beyond. A clerestory window high above the door–an exaggerated, attenuated transom–introduces natural daylight into the space, which competes with the surrounding glow of a blue/purple gel that becomes increasingly prominent as daylight subsides. The quality of light is gradually transformed from daytime to night, reflecting the virtually round-the-clock occupancy of an architecture school.

The library is entered perpendicular to its long axis, which draws views in two directions: to the generous daylight pouring into the reading room from the large bay window to the south, and beyond the bookstacks and circulation desk to the north wall, bathed in the glow of coloured lights marking an exit to the left (red) and photocopy facilities to the right (blue-green). The library space is layered with subtle symbolism: the circulation desk consists of a long stone counter faced with backlit etched glass in a ship-lap arrangement, referring to pages in a book. The reference stacks behind the circulation desk have gable ends finished in yellow-green backpainted glass, a cheeky reference to felt-tipped highlighters (described by Shnier as “the colour of study”). The canted wall of the stack area is meant to refer to an open book. And a narrow slit of glass at the south end of the Special Collections room provides a discreet view into the anteroom, allowing students to survey the comings and goings at the library’s entrance.

In contrast to the densely intertwined spaces of the collections, the new reading room is a linear, airy space with a large bay window facing College Street. One side overlooks the building’s main entrance, the other looks into the Eric Arthur gallery below. The reading room in fact acts as a mezzanine overlooking the double-height gallery through a wall of mullionless glass. A stair connecting the two spaces continues the spatial sequence from entrance through library to gallery, which in turns spills back to the entrance lobby, completing the circuit.

The gallery itself consists of four interconnected volumes: a high gallery space, tall, long and narrow; a low gallery space, one storey high and essentially square in plan; and two spaces of varying height contained within the bay window extension. As befits the gallery spaces, they are treated as neutral, laconic backdrops for materials on exhibit, with careful handling of light switches and other controls to minimize interference with exhibition panels. Colour and texture are provided by the Mexican limestone floor.

The interface between the existing exterior wall and the bay window extension is treated as a subtle essay on the relationship between old and new. The wall section is carefully lined with a gypsum board “cartoon” that follows every contour, a quietly didactic move that serves as a reminder of the activities housed in the building. Such proximity to the building’s traditional exterior detailing also serves as a reminder of how, according to Shnier, “the future of the school moves through its past.” The dramatic glass box projecting from the masonry wall seeks to engage, rather than violate, its host structure.

Like the glowing yellow-green library anteroom, the bay window feels monumental and casual at the same time, offering, just beyond the building face, privileged views along College Street. Viewed from outside, the bay reaches out in a gesture of public invitation; this is most effective after dark, when the glass transforms from reflective to transparent.

The theme of seductive ambiguity runs through the project, with spaces and surfaces offering a multiplicity of readings and experiences. The gallery can be read as an amalgam of four discrete volumes, or as a series of interlocking Ls in plan and section. The heft and solidity of the existing masonry wall is set off against the airiness, transparency and reflectivity of new glass surfaces. The sinuous spatial sequence by turns conceals and reveals the projec
t’s conceptual continuity. The project–both simple and complex, spare and rich, experiential and didactic–operates as a built dialectic, offering students an enduring object lesson in architecture’s concrete and ephemeral delights. MP

Client: University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design; Larry Wayne Richards (Dean), Barry Sampson (Assistant Dean, Facilities Planning and Design), Genny Taylor, Brian Szuberwood (U of T Management)

Architect team: Tania Bortolotto, Rick Galezowski, Martin Kohn, John Potter, Paul Raff, John Shnier

Structural: Yolles Partnership Inc.

Mechanical/Electrical: Enso Systems

Building Envelope: Brook Van Dalen

Contractor: Strutcon Ltd. (Shore and Moffat Library); Harbridge and Cross Ltd. (Eric Arthur Gallery)

Donors: Albion Glass (curtain wall glazing), Colonial Buiding Restoration (masonry cleaning), Alex Fosi for Systemalux (gallery lighting), Eileen Farrow for Stoneterra (limestone floor tile), Blackstock Leather/Negash Leather (custom leather).

Area: 10,000 square feet

Budget: $950,000 (Shore and Moffat Library total project cost); $680,000 (Eric Arthur Gallery total project cost)

Completion: November 1998 (Shore and Moffat Library); November 2001 (Eric Arthur Gallery)

Photography: Michael Awad unless noted