Speed and Stasis

York University Honour Court and Welcome Centre, Toronto, Ontario

Teeple Architects Inc.

Over the past decade, York University–a suburban campus in the northwest corner of Toronto–has steadily improved its stock of buildings and public spaces. Despite inauspicious architectural beginnings, the campus is becoming increasingly coherent and clearly defined. The establishment of the Harry W. Arthurs Central Common in the early 1990s (designed by Janet Rosenberg Landscape Architects and Montgomery Sisam Associates Inc. Architects) was a major intervention that defined a central public open space for the campus. The recently built Honour Court and Welcome Centre by Teeple Architects Inc. establishes a gateway to the Common and the campus as a whole.

From the University’s main Keele Street entrance, the Welcome Centre contends with the strong cylindrical form of Moriyama and Teshima’s Vari Hall and the imposing backdrop of the Ross Complex by creating a striking wedge-shaped form on an island surrounded by the main campus roadway. Visitors can pull up to the building’s information window, clearly visible in a glass enclosure unique amid the Tyndal limestone-clad concrete structure. Behind the information desk, a wall of bright red tile provides a strong, highly visible splash of colour in a muted palette consisting of limestone, concrete and wood.

The building functions as both an object in the landscape and a minimal enclosed garden, and is designed to address two extremes of scale. Seen from a passing vehicle, its sweeping cantilevers and emphatic horizontality–enhanced by a series of striations in the wall–create the illusion of movement, transforming static building materials into an elegant study of speed.

The Honour Court offers a dramatically different experience: instead of movement, stillness; instead of speed, pause. Bounded by five-metre high concrete walls, the court provides a refuge and a space of contemplation. The building’s sweeping, aggressive geometry gives way to a more serene realm of detail reminiscent of the work of Carlo Scarpa: wooden gates (of 8″ x 8″ Western Red Cedar) and benches that echo the wall striations; stainless steel scuppers, chain rainwater leaders and trough grates; islands of pea gravel punctuating the dark-coloured concrete floor; a single small tree.

The striations in the walls serve as slots for placing marble plaques honouring donors to the University. As the slots fill up with additional plaques, the walls will become increasingly opaque, the court increasingly contained. With its spare material palette, marble donor plaques, exposure to the sky and Scarpaesque approach to detail, the Honour Court has unmistakable associations with the stateliness of funerary architecture; the space would make an equally successful mausoleum or memorial.

The dynamic plan geometry, folded planes and complex roof forms of the Welcome Centre have become something of a Teeple signature, showing up in the Church of the Incarnation in Oakville, Ontario (see CA June 2001) and in current designs for the Academic Science Centre at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. At York University, the plasticity of concrete lends itself to the irregular nature of the structure, the strong distinction between solid and void, and the dramatic roof projections. Both suspended and cantilevered, the roof slab is just six inches thick, tapering to four inches at its extreme edges, thrusting well beyond the pavilion’s walls.

The project’s expressive use of concrete earned it the 2001 Ontario Concrete Award of Architectural Merit in the Cast-in-Place category. The contrast between the dynamic exterior and the more static court establishes a counterpoint that can be read as analogous to the university experience: a balance between exuberance and contemplation, between the sensory and the cerebral. MP

Client: York University

Architect team: Stephen Teeple, Tom Arban, Breck Macfarlane, Morris Wu, Kael Opie

Structural: Yolles Partnership Inc.

Mechanical: University Plumbing

Electrical: Lighting Perceptions Inc.

Contractor: Kenaidan Contracting Ltd.

Area: 6,000 square feet

Budget: $800,000

Completion: May 2000

Photography: Tom Arban unless noted