The Quad Student Residences, York University, Toronto, Ontario

Imagery by artist Nicolas Baier is inscribed into the façades of a new pair of residence buildings at Toronto’s York University, designed by ARK. Photo by Nicolas Baier

Two six-storey student housing buildings, clad in black metal panels, sit alongside each other at the southern end of Toronto’s York University campus. Behind them are parking lots and beside them is a scraggly field, waiting to become something better. The most striking thing about these new housing blocks—named The Quad—are the delicate line drawings etched into their almost pure black metal exteriors.

The façade imagery is by Nicolas Baier, a Montreal artist who works with photography, video, sculpture and drawings. It results from Toronto’s requirement for developers to contribute to public art. ARK, the project’s architect, ran an RFP following city guidelines to find an abstract artist. They had a very precise idea of how the art would work with the building, and prescribed the location of the drawings—for dramatic impact and practical considerations like avoiding retail signage—along with the exact methodology of applying the lines. The five-storey-tall drawings extend over multiple cladding panels, and are comprised of individual lines etched 3 millimetres wide and 0.3 millimetres deep. They were cut with a CNC machine exposing unfinished aluminium through the painted face of the 4-millimetre-thick aluminium composite panels. When the sun is low, the silvery bare metal lines appear illuminated. 

Some drawings are plant-like and tangled, others are wispy etchings, and a few are enigmatic patterns that seem computer generated. One looks like lightning, crashing down the façade. ARK inspected every panel multiple times: when they left the fabricator’s shop, at the engraver’s, once they were installed and for a final deficiency review. 

The buildings each have their own white-clad courtyard, Oreo-like, and a pedestrian lane running between the two structures is the primary means of access. Over eight hundred students live in the two buildings, in variously sized apartments. Five levels of housing sit atop common spaces—meeting rooms, exercise facilities and lounges—that look into the courtyard. Facing the street are every manner of fast food restaurants, set shoulder to shoulder, which makes sense given the number of hungry students living at hand. 

York University, like most post-secondary schools, uses architecture as a tool to advertise its position at the cutting edge. Near the campus centre, the trend of highly regarded designers pushing out the latest architectural ideas is most evident, with various degrees of success. But by the perimeter, where much of the student housing is located, the form of most buildings quietens down.

Guela Solow-Ruda, the partner in charge of the project at ARK, says that the residences’ simple shapes were a deliberate choice. The architectural intent was to design buildings and suites that would register as home for the students staying there, many of them foreign. Her team also wanted to highlight the edge of the campus, in the same way a bold line drawn with a Sharpie marker will demarcate an area on paper. For a campus where one long edge drifts off into suburban housing, it’s a compelling idea—made all the more compelling by the striking artwork inscribed onto these black boxes.

David Steiner is a freelance writer living in Toronto.