Suspended Animation (November 01, 2004)

Sharpe Centre for Design, Ontario College of Art & Design, Toronto, Ontario

Alsop Architects in joint venture with Robbie/Young + Wright Architects

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

–Bertolt Brecht

This quote by German playwright Bertolt Brecht captures the spirit of the radical avant-garde that emerged early in the 20th century, completing a cycle that began 100 years earlier with the dislocation of the artist from the social and political mainstream. The Romantic archetype that defined the artist through much of the 19th century as a wounded outsider too sensitive for the crass machinations of industrial society was replaced, in the years straddling the First World War, with a model of the artist as radical activist. No longer content to simply sit outside the cultural mainstream, the artist emerged as a politicized agent proffering a new vision of society, one that (s)he would forge alongside a newly empowered working class. Brecht’s masterful juxtaposition of the artist’s tools emphasized the transformation from effete and powerless interpreter (mirror) to forceful and effective participant (hammer). This new role fuelled numerous artistic and architectural manifestos of early modernism, and established avant-gardism as the default position of creative practice.

Although widely discredited by Postmodernist critiques, this perception of art and its practitioners as agents of a radical avant-garde, as purveyors of perpetual novelty and originality–what New Yorker art critic Robert Hughes famously termed The Shock of the New–remains remarkably resilient. Although no longer associated with the utopian project of creating a new society, art has retained its avant-garde status through highly publicized controversial works such as those of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. While mainstream media condemns these works as transgressive and offensive, it also uses them to concretize and perpetuate the stereotype of an artistic avant-garde whose role it is to constantly upstage itself in the pursuit of shock value and new ways of seeing.

To refer to the new Sharp Centre for Design at Toronto’s Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) as shocking might be to overstate the case, but not by much. Designed by London architect Will Alsop in collaboration with Toronto’s Robbie/ Young + Wright (RYW) Architects, the Sharp Centre delivers some 7,000 square metres of much-needed program space in a decidedly unconventional package. Alsop and RYW project architect Gregory Woods–who, along with interior designer Caroline Robbie-Montgomery, recently left RYW to co-found Alsop’s Toronto office–have designed an audacious and playful addition that challenges conventional notions of institutional architecture along with the city’s sometimes smug urban politesse. Supported by 12 multi-coloured steel stilts that raise its underbelly 26 metres above the ground, the new building–nicknamed the Tabletop–looms like a gargantuan steel-clad trailer above McCaul Street to the east, and, to the west, Grange Park, a landscaped open space of historic significance that the college shares with the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), soon to get its own makeover at the hands of Frank Gehry.

Given the perception of art as avant-garde challenger of social and cultural mores, it seems that if any institution should break with received urban and architectural orthodoxies, an art school should. That this is not altogether consistent with OCAD’s recent institutional trajectory is something of an irony, and testimony to the persistence of the avant-garde myth in the face of the college’s more mainstream reality. A shift in the focus of the college was acknowledged in 1996 when it changed its name from Ontario College of Art to Ontario College of Art & Design in recognition of–despite its formidable fine art legacy–the increased importance of its applied arts (Graphic Design, Advertising and Illustration as well as Environmental and Industrial Design) relative to its fine art programs (which include Photography, Sculpture and Installation, Integrated Media, Drawing and Painting, and Printmaking). In 2002, the college took a further step into the mainstream of postsecondary education with its elevation from diploma- to degree-granting status (OCAD students can now complete a university-equivalent Bachelor of Fine Arts or Bachelor of Design).

Given OCAD’s dual commitment to the fine and applied arts, the choice of Alsop as architect for the project benefits from his dual insights as both artist and designer. Alsop initiates most of his architectural projects with a gestural abstract painting, usually on a large scale. This method was used in the case of the Sharp Centre, and Woods notes that this posed one of several challenges to the clients’ preconceptions, among them the notion that any addition to the college would occupy the ground immediately south of the existing building.

Alsop notes that the idea for elevating the structure originated with the desire to minimize its impact on residents of The Grange condominium across McCaul Street, who stood to lose their view of the park. The condominium’s views have indeed been preserved beneath the new building, but other factors are also at play. Elevating the addition above the existing college left a larger area of the building undisturbed during construction–most notably existing printmaking studios equipped with century-old presses weighing several tons–which Woods notes had considerable cost benefits. These pragmatic reasons notwithstanding, the building-on-stilts is something of a recurring motif for Alsop, whose Peckham Library in London also includes a large component elevated above the ground plane. And it’s hard not to see the influence of his exposure as a student at London’s Architectural Association to the various members of Archigram and to Cedric Price. The Sharp Centre seems to owe a particular debt to Ron Herron’s Walking City, the OCAD addition’s dynamically angled stilts seeming poised to march down McCaul Street towards Queen West.

The Sharp Centre shares Archigram’s signature wit, treating architecture less as venerable, precious artefact than as an opportunity for a bit of fun. In a discussion last year at Toronto’s Design Exchange, Alsop opined that the professions–notably medicine and law–were developed to deal with various aspects of human suffering, while architecture had the unique opportunity, indeed the responsibility, to deliver pleasure and joy. True to this sentiment, the Sharp Centre’s bright colours and simple forms endow the looming structure, which could have been overbearing and threatening, with a light-hearted quality that comes across as benign and playful.

That the building’s audacious urban gesture and bold expression deliver at least a modicum of joy within Toronto’s otherwise restrained fabric is something to celebrate. Once inside, however, any expectation of spatial excitement on par with the exuberant exterior is soon thwarted. This is not so much the case with the main lobby, which overlooks McCaul through a three-storey high curtain wall glazed with alternating clear, translucent and coloured glass. Here, the scale and detail of the space and the elements within it–the huge concrete monolith that is the circulation core providing access to the Sharp Centre and intended to serve as a surface for the projection of images visible through the curtain wall, and the structural hollow steel sections inventively perforated to double as HVAC distribution ducts–are consistent with the larger ambition of the Tabletop. One level up, the lobby expands into the Great Hall, a two-storey public gathering space that occupies a former exterior courtyard and provides intimate views, at ground level, into Grange Park to the west. This space, while very spare, is punctuated with a large “X” and a playful pattern of blobs inscribed into the ceiling and lit with magenta neon, a nod to the playfulness promised on the exterior.

The main disappointment is within the Tabletop proper. Two dedicate
d elevators whisk visitors up through the existing building directly to the Sharp Centre, and deliver their passengers to one of two lobbies marked by another neon-lit “X” inscribed in the ceiling. Beyond this modest gesture, there is nothing to identify these spaces as in any way remarkable–no sky lobby, no exploitation of view, no experience of the building’s elevation above the ground plane. The Tabletop is so densely packed with compartmentalized program spaces that there is no expression of the larger architectural gesture. The exceptions are open studios on each floor that span the entire width of the floor plate, providing views through perimeter windows, the brightly coloured heads, sills and jambs which are deep enough to serve as alcove seating. Successful as they are, the windows are the only elements that refer to the exuberance of the exterior.

Woods agrees that the heavily programmed Tabletop runs counter to the vision that informed the building’s exterior, and notes that the project was originally designed with a more open studio atmosphere in mind. However, according to the architect, after decades of putting up with substandard facilities, the college was determined to construct dedicated teaching spaces for particular departments, which trumped proposals for more flexible interdisciplinary spaces. While the college embraced the image of avant-garde experimentation implied by Alsop’s Tabletop, its programmatic needs proved to be decidedly more conventional. If the project’s larger architectural gesture represents Brecht’s notion of art as a hammer with which to forge change, the heavily programmed interior acts as a mirror reflecting higher education’s tendency to compartmentalization and specialization.

While OCAD is proudly promoting and fundraising its $42.5 million expansion project, Woods notes that the cost of the Sharp Centre for Design (a deceptive misnomer, as its 7,000 square metres accommodate spaces for the three Faculties of Art, Design, and Liberal Studies) was actually $19.5 million, with another $10 million going to renovate some 20,000 square metres in a smattering of other OCAD buildings, and the balance going to soft costs. The architect notes that in order to meet the budget, a number of design features were scaled back or eliminated. “We proposed filling in some of the multi-level spaces in the lower building with program in order to allow for some double-height spaces in the Tabletop,” he notes, but adds that the Great Hall took priority. Even more disappointing, the red diagonal bar that links the Tabletop to its earth-bound predecessor was to have been clad in translucent material and doubled as grand stair and exhibition space. Security concerns led the college to limit access to a number of spaces within the building; the stair/gallery was one such casualty. Now, it serves only as an exit stair from the Tabletop, with alarmed doors denying access from above or below except in case of emergency. One of the most potentially exciting spaces in the project is off limits.

Based on the history of OCAD’s development, Woods notes that the college “seems to need to expand every 25 to 30 years or so.” The Sharp Centre anticipates possible expansion; the current Tabletop measures 83 metres in length, but planning approval has been secured for up to 165 metres, which would allow the extension of the building to both the north and south. The structure of the Tabletop, which consists of two-storey trusses spanning the length and width of the building, also allows a high degree of flexibility with respect to interior partitions, which could be easily reconfigured to reflect OCAD’s changing needs. In this respect, the Tabletop offers itself as a piece of infrastructure that can accommodate a variety of spatial configurations over time; future building committees and designers should embrace the opportunity to elevate the building’s interior spaces to the larger idea’s soaring ambition.

Marco Polo is an Assistant Professor in Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science and former editor of Canadian Architect.

Client: Ontario College of Art & Design

Architect Team: Alsop Architects in joint venture with Robbie/Young+Wright Architects

Landscape Architect: YWLA

Urban Design Consultant: Sterling Finlayson Architects

Project Management: PHA Project Management Inc.

Structural Engineering: Carruthers & Wallace Ltd.

Mechanical, Electrical Engineers: MCW Consultants Inc.

Civil Engineers: Cansult Engineers & Project Managers

Geotechnical Consulting: Shaheen & Peaker Limited

Lighting Designer: Stephen Pollard Lighting and Production Design

Code Consultants: Hine Reichard Tomlin Inc.

Cost Consultant: Hanscomb

Area: 67,000 ft2 (building expansion); 220,000 ft2 (renovation)

Budget: $42.5 million total (includes new construction, renovations and indirect costs)

Photography: Richard Johnson