Tactical Insertions

PROJECT Langara College Library, Langara Student Union and Langara Classroom Building C, Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECTS Teeple Architects Inc. and associate architects IBI/HB Architects
TEXT Matthew Soules

One of the most obvious things to say about Stephen Teeple’s new work at Vancouver’s Langara College is that it’s black. Literally. The new library’s exterior presents a hulking black concrete mass, the renovated classroom building is refaced in black metal panels, and the student centre is clad with black cementitious board. Not to ascribe too much meaning to a building’s colour, but in this case it’s difficult to resist. Every sizeable city has a distinct architectural culture which inflects all aspects of design–including colour. Douglas Coupland’s idiosyncratic but insightful guide to Vancouver, City of Glass, smartly riffs on the city’s colour palette: a range of greens, a few blues, and grey–naturally–for the sky. But there’s no mention of black and I can’t think of any recent building in Vancouver in which the colour has figured so prominently. That Teeple has operated outside of the pervasive Vancouver palette is not insignificant and is the signifying tip of a larger architectural agenda he has flown from Toronto to Vancouver.

Like many other cities, Vancouver’s architectural culture is relatively insular and, in more ways than one, it’s hard to imagine the new work at Langara being produced by a local. In Metro Vancouver over the preceding decades, there have been very few significant commissions designed by “outsiders.” At the same time it is readily apparent that Vancouver would benefit from more diversity in its architecture. An increased number of architects from elsewhere operating in the city could help address this shortcoming.

Architecture and urbanism in Vancouver are famed for their livability. This livability is most often described in terms of podium towers, ample green space, and generous civic programming, and is associated with the newer residential condominium districts of the central city. One might extend this list to include ecological and environmental sensitivity in light of recent projects such as the new convention centre and the South East False Creek neighbourhood. What is less commonly discussed are the ways in which the ethos of livability impacts buildings and projects throughout the city and far beyond the residential zones of the central city. At its core, livability prefaces the middle ground; for many good reasons it is anti-extremism. The podium tower itself is literally a hybrid middle that combines the high density of the point tower with the more “human” scale of the rowhouse. A collateral result of pursuing this comfortable middle is a latent distrust of “form” or “shape”–the implication being that an overly shapely building must somehow disregard more important considerations related to livability and environmental performance. Too much form is superficial, the argument goes. This is, of course, an overly simplistic and reductive position. Nevertheless it silently persists. Perhaps the most important contribution that Teeple Architects offer at Langara is a useful reminder that formalism can be smart and meaningful–that is, how ambitious shapeliness and a resulting iconicism can be the product of polyvalent criteria ranging from environmental performance to social interactivity.

Langara College opened in 1965 and has been operating at its current campus on 49th Avenue in south Vancouver since 1970. With 23,000 students, it is one of Metro Vancouver’s major post-secondary institutions and is the only one with its primary campus directly inside the city of Vancouver. Occupying 20 acres within a detached-home neighbourhood, the campus has until recently been defined by a collection of disparate and mostly Brutalist structures set among a sea of parking. The school is currently reinventing itself through a 25-year master plan that seeks to unify its campus and connect it more effectively with its surrounding context. This effort, along with the new Canada Line subway, with a station two short blocks away, poise the campus to possibly take on a more central role in the intellectual and cultural life of the city.

Teeple Architects’ first and most important building on the campus is the new library–a 7,700-square-metre, three-storey rectangular mass that anchors the western portion of the campus. As part of the master-plan strategy, the building buries former surface parking underground and helps configure and order its surroundings. To its north, a series of reflecting pools and a plaza extend from the main entrance to 49th Avenue, linking the building with the campus’s most important public edge. A three-storey-high interior circulation spine runs through the entire western edge of the building from the main entry–offering a major connection sequence between planned future buildings that will straddle the library to its northwest and southwest. As the western boundary of a centrally located open space, it helps define a new student quadrangle.

While the library and its landscaping strategies give order to its surrounding context, the process also acts in reverse, as exterior contingencies at multiple scales shape the library building. Conceptually, we could describe the library as a concrete block that is deformed by external forces. In an ambitious effort to naturally cool and ventilate the building, five wind tower voids are subtracted from the block, each facilitating air movement through the use of the stack effect. Primary vertical circulation is located within two of these voids, therefore allowing these environmental performance mechanisms to also function as organizational and experiential devices. The roof is warped into an undulating surface that responds to multi-directional wind movement in an effort to accelerate crosswinds, thereby enhancing the performance of the wind towers. A rooftop weather station monitors wind direction, speed and humidity, and adjusts louvres in the wind towers accordingly. Again, environmental performance has palpably impacted the spatial form and experience of the building as the top floor of the library’s interior is defined by the strikingly exposed concrete undersurface of the curving roof that recalls the grand reading rooms of classical libraries–only here, form is at once grand and performative. In addition to the warped roofscape and the wind towers, exteriority inflects the building elsewhere. Two exterior subtractions drop down into the building in the form of sunken courtyards that are planted with trees–offering a visually rich interaction with living ecology deep within the procession of space. At the ground, the primary reflecting pool carves its way into the northern face of the building, resulting in visual connection with the pool from the interior and a dramatic overhang. At the southern edge, a primary axis from the central quadrangle cuts through the mass, again resulting in an overhang, but this time providing a walkway protected from the rain.

This pushing and pulling is echoed in the interior circulation hall that runs north-south. A larger study zone extends into the hall as an elevated bridge, while smaller-scale study nooks pop out as glass boxes that offer connectivity to the movement below. A concrete stair devoted to the administration offices similarly juts into the space. The result is a physical and interactive enlivening of the space. Elsewhere in the project, this formal clarity breaks down with sometimes less than successful results. A jarring instance is the undulating dropped ceilings on floors one and two. While clearly an echo of the concrete roof, this purely formal conceit devalues the performative formalism elsewhere in the scheme. Another example is the massing at the southwest corner. Here, the simple but provocative notion of a concrete block deformed by a series of forces and factors seems to have been aban
doned in favour of a collage-like assembly of forms and materials; a berm-covered computer lab, a heroic glass stair, and the concrete mass dematerializing into planar elements.

Teeple’s newest building at Langara is the recently completed student centre that sits east of the library at the geographic heart of the campus. A dynamic “Y” plan that positions one of its lengths tightly between two existing classroom buildings with the other two lengths extending out as a figure into the central quadrangle, this building formally ties the campus together by offering a new circuit-like hub. Its modest area packs informal study lounge areas, a restaurant, and student union offices into a complex and energetic sectional arrangement. One of the challenges in lending unity to the disparate campus is to offer connection among a variety of differing ground elevations. Primary among these shifts is the drop from the existing entry levels of the neighbouring classroom buildings to the lower quadrangle. Through a series of ramps and stairs, the student centre resolves these differences in a building that is radically spatially diverse. A high lounge space opens up to the quadrangle. A sleek interior ramp leads to a compressed restaurant that is tucked under the cellular offices. Two tight stairs extend up into the office level. Another ramp runs up the exterior of the building and connects to a route between the existing classroom buildings, offering overlooks down into the centre and a bypass shortcut through the campus. The overall result is an array of spatial qualities that make this relatively small building feel large and varied.

Like the library building, exterior forces play a significant role in determining the form of the student centre. While the library derives much of its spatial logic from environmental performance criteria, the student centre prefaces its contingent location in relation to existing structures and ground heights. In both instances, Teeple successfully achieves a formally ambitious architecture that is responsive to particular needs. However, in both buildings Teeple seems to undervalue restraint and persistent clarity. The purely formal conceit of the library’s undulating dropped ceiling on its lower floors is echoed in the student centre in idiosyncratic and almost ornamental little angles and tweaks in various planar and structural elements. This results in an overly fussy amalgam of elements in which the clarity of larger moves is compromised. It is not unreasonable to want both buildings to be calmer throughout, thereby allowing the strong, larger operations to be more appreciated.

In a city preoccupied with a notion of livability that often suspiciously views strong form as potentially superficial, Teeple has made an important contribution in the work at Langara by demonstrating that this kind of architecture can indeed be responsive and responsible; that it can be grounded in the performative specificity of its location. Part of the rationale for choosing black as the dominant exterior colour is to make the buildings stand out in relation to Vancouver’s often overcast skies. Black itself is contingent and operative. We can only hope that more non-local architects will have the opportunity to expand the range of possibilities in this fast-growing metropolis. CA

Matthew Soules, MAIBC, is the director of Matthew Soules Architecture (MSA) and an Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia.

Langara College Library and Classroom Building
Client Langara College
Architect Team Stephen Teeple, Cheryl Atkinson, Myles Craig, Luc Bouliane, Martin Bruckner, Jeff Christianson, Hilde Heyvaerts
Structural Glotman Simpson
Mechanical Cobalt Engineering
Electrical Stantec, Keen Engineering
Landscape PFS
Interiors Teeple Architects Inc.
LEED IBI/HB Architects
Contractor Bird Construction
Area 80,000 ft2
Budget $35 M
Completion 2007

Langara Student Union and Langara Classroom Building C
Client Langara College
Architect Team Stephen Teeple, Myles Craig, Luc Bouliane, Jeff Christianson
Structural Weiler Smith Bowers
Mechanical IMEC Mechanical Consultants/Perez Engineering Ltd.
Electrical Genivar, RFA Consulting Electrical Engineers
Landscape Teeple Architects Inc.
Interiors Teeple Architects Inc.
LEED Enermodal Engineering
Contractor Bird Construction
Area 68,000 ft2
Budget $18 M
Completion 2009