Something in Common

PROJECT McGregor Community Centre Lounge, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Bortolotto Design Architect
TEXT Paige Magarrey
PHOTOS Shai Gil, Ben Rahn

“Basically, the City of Toronto said ‘Here: do something nice,’” says architect Tania Bortolotto while sitting in the sun-filled McGregor Community Centre Lounge, a recently completed city build that’s easily one of her most successful projects to date—and, incidentally, one of the tiniest. The 130-square-metre space, located within Scarborough’s McGregor Community Centre and lovingly nicknamed The Commons, is a lesson in doing more with less: less money, less space and less time, all of which resulted in an uplifting space that is already transforming an at-risk community. 

Though it’s clearly a landmark project for Bortolotto Design Architect, the 13-year-old Toronto studio is no stranger to the rigours of government and non-profit projects—previous endeavours include the Toronto headquarters for Street Kids International and Castlefield’s Municipal Works office, and, most recently, a new rest stop for Oakville transit workers. “They’re very complex compared to a house or private project,” says Bortolotto. “Because of budgets, because of timelines, because of the complexities of the community and the politics.” 

And the complexities of The Commons are no exception. The project is one of 26 around the city that benefited from the Priority Neighbourhoods program that injected $13 million in government funds into new playgrounds, community spaces and parks in 13 high-risk neighbourhoods around the city, from a new skateboard park in Lawrence Park to an arts hub at Jane and Finch’s Yorkwood Library. Dorset Park, the West Scarborough neighbourhood where the lounge is located, is affected by high poverty (26.5 per cent of the ward), unemployment and drop-out rates, which have led to gang activity, crime and violence. 

The lounge’s budget was limited—just under $800,000 from the federal and provincial Recreational Infrastructure Canada Program (RInC), the city’s Priority Neighbourhoods Investment, and donations from the United Way Youth Challenge Fund. And the schedule was tight; with the added community meetings that drew out the schematic and design development phases to just under two years, the construction phase was limited to about a year. But the real challenges lay in the site. Situated between two existing—and differently designed—buildings, the McGregor Park Community Centre and the 2004 McGregor Park Library (designed by ZAS Architects), the new lounge was to not only link together the two structures, but also create a new façade for the entire complex along Lawrence Avenue. “It became a sort of marker for the community centre,” says Bortolotto, who laments that the façade has to compete with the enormous parking lot situated just east of the entrance. “Just the way it fit in with the rest of the building, the site was really challenging. What’s the character of this building? How do we fit it in with everything?” In an extra little twist, the site also had contaminated and wet soil that had to be treated before they could even break ground. 

Some of the challenges led to really great things. For example, all projects in the Priority Neighbourhoods initiatives used extensive community engagement to determine what the neighbourhoods really needed; for The Commons, Bortolotto worked with 30 youths from the Dorset Park Youth Council, an organization committed to developing anti-gang and anti-violence initiatives. Not only did the teens help to establish a community connection to the project from the very beginning, they also helped Bortolotto and her team to prioritize which features were most important to the actual users. Top of the list was, of course, safety. There were certain colours to steer clear of completely due to gang affiliation, so the design team stuck to a simple palette of blue and grey. Expensive bulletproof glass was requested for the Lawrence Avenue façade, which Bortolotto circumvented by raising the windows above street level to obscure views of the busy street while bringing in more natural daylight. And she had to fight for outdoor areas, addressing night-time safety concerns by adding security lights and surveillance cameras indoors and out. Really, the community’s needs were very clear: a safe, calm place to grow. But when the safety concerns include guns, gangs and very real violence, the challenge is to create a safe place that doesn’t feel like a prison. 

The answer, for Bortolotto, is uplifting design—something that she has focused on in previous projects to dramatic result by using a three-tiered approach. First, an explorative approach to the form and shape of a building—“carving the space,” as she calls it. The height of the ceiling, the width of the space, and tweaks in the overall proportions of the project don’t usually change the budget too much, she says, but they can make a big impact in deviating from more traditional designs. Despite its small size, the lounge completely changes the face of the community centre from the street by jutting out as close as possible to Lawrence Avenue, with its expansive ribbon of windows reflecting back the surrounding trees and sun. Inside, the double-height ceiling prevents any feelings of claustrophobia and fosters an open-concept approach: aside from a galley kitchen along the southern wall and a space-age all-glass office cube in the corner, the lounge is totally open and reconfigurable—a necessity, considering how flexible the space had to be to accommodate everything from business meetings and seniors’ gatherings to youth lunches and movie nights. 

It’s the composition that led to one of the most dramatic elements of the space—and Bortolotto’s favourite part of the design. The entrance hallway running along the eastern wall acts as a transitional portal for the space, with glazing on either side that overlooks the sprawling parking lot on one side and the bustling day-care on the other. But as it leads into the lounge, the windows both end, creating a momentary sensation of intense contraction before the room opens up and lifts your eyes to the row of glass panels running below the roofline. “Suddenly you’re forced to look up into the sky,” says Bortolotto. It’s a brilliant element, and a problem-solver: it resolved the need for bullet-proof glass, offered the users the privacy they desired, and obscured the less-than-inspiring views of Lawrence Avenue and the parking lot without blocking out the outside world. 

And the outside world is another thing that Bortolotto instills in every project she works on to evoke that uplifting feel. In addition to bringing in views of the sky and treetops, she included operable windows for natural ventilation, and fought to include a small outdoor courtyard through a door on the western wall. “It’s being close to nature. Like we are one,” she says, smiling as she hears her own words. “You have to be part of it and close to it. We’re just automatically attracted to nature, and yet we live in a world so detached from it.” 

The final element of Bortolotto’s approach is decidedly open-ended: making the space interesting. This means everything from choice of materials to the use of textures—and for The Commons, even the cost-saving measures that had to be followed to keep the project under budget. Rather than wasting money on expensive finishes, the team focused on a simple pared-back palette with unique twists. The concrete block walls, for example, are raked horizontally to add more texture, and the s
outhern gypsum wall (painted sky blue, a non-gang colour) encloses storage lockers before curving up and across the ceiling, stopping just short of the glazing to create a slightly dropped ceiling that gives the space a feeling of an open pavilion rather than an enclosed space. “The materiality brings the interest,” says Bortolotto. “They’re subtle, not pretentious. You might sit here and not know why it feels good.” 

Since its completion in late 2011, The Commons has become home to a lunch program for Winston Churchill students twice a week, a youth photography course, mentoring workshops and youth council meetings. “Everyone seems to be comfortable in the space,” says McGregor Park’s community recreation programmer Terry Cheung. “It can be used for all sorts of different programming.” A simple response, but exactly what Bortolotto was hoping for when she first saw the site and envisioned what would grow from it. “It was just a small project,” she says. “But I wanted to know how we could make a great project out of something that’s just a room.” CA 

Paige Magarrey is a Toronto-based architecture and design writer.

Client City of Toronto
Architect Team Tania Bortolotto, Alex Horber, Jerry Lin
Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership Ltd.
Electrical/Mechanical Jain & Associates Ltd.
Landscape Fleisher Ridout Partnership Inc.
Interiors Bortolotto Design Architect Inc.
Contractor Trumbley & Hampton Inc.
Code David Hine Engineering Inc.
Area 1,450 ft2
Budget $800,000
Completion September 2011