The Red Lantern

PROJECT Regis College at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECTS Larkin Architect Limited
TEXT Jacob Allderdice
Regis College, a Jesuit graduate school at the University of Toronto, has a new home. Its location, at Queen’s Park Circle and Wellesley Street, is kitty-corner to Ontario’s Parliament buildings and on a critical university spine. Designed by Toronto-based Larkin Architect Limited, it includes significant renovations to the historic Christie Mansion (one-time home of the great cookie mogul Mr. Christie) and a new “lantern”–a 1,000-square-foot atrium linking the original building with a 1950s-era college building behind. The two buildings sit at half-levels relative to each other, requiring careful attention to barrier-free design, including a ramp to the street and a new elevator.
Previously cloistered on a quiet minor street, but now on display at a major civic intersection, Regis has a mandate to welcome the city. Earlier this year, it had the chance to do just that when it served as the venue for a rare Toronto lecture by Swiss architect Mario Botta, thereby launching the new Larisey Lecture Series.
You might remember Botta of the symmetrical geometry and the gargantuan oculus at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art (1995). Perhaps you might remember his inclusion in Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History. As early as 1980, Frampton had identified Botta as a key figure in the Critical Regionalism movement. A project by Botta’s Swiss colleague, Alberto Sartoris, graces the cover of Frampton’s now-classic textbook.
Dr. Peter Larisey, professor of Art History at Regis College and the namesake of the lecture series, knows better. Larisey has studied and travelled widely to visit Botta’s work. As a Jesuit, Larisey finds God in all things, including art and architecture. But as a modern art scholar, Larisey asks, “Why is the church so alienated from Modernism?” This question has been the focus of his career and an ongoing book project.
A colleague of Larisey’s, professor Peter Warrian, had the idea of funding a lecture series in Larisey’s name. Warrian is a philanthropist, engineer and economist who in 1999 sold a computer application he’d developed to Microsoft. Today he runs the Lupina Foundation, which gives away close to $1 million every year. He is taken with “Larisey’s hypothesis” that the Church has been able to embrace architects “in ways it has not been able to always accept artists.” Warrian created a lecture committee including artist Sarah Hall, writer John Bentley Mays, Larisey and others. Ultimately the committee chose Mario Botta to launch the series and to celebrate the completion of Regis College’s new digs.
Architect Kevin Weiss, partner at Larkin since 2007, ran the Regis College project. Weiss’s pedigree includes years at Diamond + Schmitt Architects as well as with Ian MacDonald Architect. He received a post-professional degree in urban design from the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, where he continues to teach occasionally. Weiss is jumpy and intense, with a roving curiosity. On his desk at the Larkin office is a well-thumbed copy of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. When he speaks about Regis College, he boasts: “I took the stair in the old Christie mansion as a personal challenge. I wanted to best it.” He’s speaking of the sinuous wooden stair that rises through four floors toward an ornate glass oculus in the 1890s mansion. His exuberant, poetic response of a red-painted steel ribbon takes the shape in plan of a stylized fish–“but it is actually an homage to Richard Serra.”
The new stair takes centre stage in a newly constructed atrium that connects the Victorian mansion with Fontbonne Hall, a 1950s university building behind. Regis College occupies the entire mansion, plus the basement and ground floor of Fontbonne. The atrium serves as a “welcoming lantern,” notes Weiss’s partner at Larkin, Roberto Chiotti. The lantern serves as front door, with an address on Wellesley Street. Enormous light wells flank the new entrance and flood the basement library with daylight.
One major impetus for the Regis College redesign was a gift of a full-scale facsimile of the St. John’s Bible, the first illuminated bible to be drawn in over 500 years. Larkin Architect designed a custom stand for the bible, in red-painted steel to match the new stair, and mounted it on the wall by the entrance. The stand had to provide security, humidity and light control, but also ease of access: each day a page is turned, offering passersby a chance encounter with the sacred.
A simple circular skylight was inserted into the flat ceiling of the atrium. According to Weiss, the theology students at Regis refer to this oculus as “the eye of God.” Indeed, a trinity of gazes converge at the signature stair. Besides the oculus, there is the ubiquitous black bubble of a wall-mounted security camera and the hall porter’s desk at the upper landing. Curiously enough, it’s the latter that commands pride of place–one is greeted by a security desk after ascending the curved stair. Situated as it is beneath the oculus, this perch would have been the ideal station for the display of the new illuminated Bible.
On the ground floor of Fontbonne Hall is a 250-seat chapel, where Mario Botta lectured. The space felt weary that evening: with pews, cracked terrazzo floors and a trio of tall stained-glass windows. Botta showed his slides on a jury-rigged screen consisting of a portable whiteboard, draped with a sheet to reduce glare. Light levels lacked fine control, and Botta asked periodically for adjustments.
Weiss acknowledges these deficiencies, but explains the uncertain future of Fontbonne. Heroic engineering in the form of a massive concrete shear wall buttresses Fontbonne’s west flank: should Fontbonne ever go, the “lantern” will remain standing alone. Thus, while the design originally included chapel renovations, these were cut from the budget without remorse.
As with the shear wall, engineering heroics were also called on to “hang” the second floor archives within the historic mansion: an invisible insertion designed to carry an enormous new load while leaving the irreplaceable plasterwork of the reception hall below untouched. The other major insertion was a new elevator, set into the back of the Christie Mansion, providing barrier-free access between the two buildings. A door on one side opens into the basement and main floor of Fontbonne Hall, and on the other side, half a level up, into their counterparts in the Christie Mansion.
The Christie mansion is a “listed” Toronto heritage building, and the University paid careful attention to the Larkin design. A committee that included Toronto architects Brigitte Shim and Bruce Kuwabara praised it, according to Weiss, for its “well-behaved” connection to the old building. “It’s Victorian in a way,” says Weiss–it has to mediate between historic eras, and pays careful attention to the discovery of governing lines between the 1890s mansion and the 1950s hall. The new main entry is up a shallow three-step climb or a ramp from Wellesley Street. Beneath a zinc-panelled fascia, signage announces REGIS COLLEGE in sans-serif letters–formed from a single piece of steel. Low-iron glass used in this wall is exceptionally clear, allowing visibility through the “lantern” to the glazed back door at the north.
On the evening of Botta’s lecture, this back door, which leads to the street and other university buildings, was locked, leaving many guests standing in the cold, waiting for a passing soul to let them in. Unfortunately, a registration desk at the front door, tucked away in a niche within the handicap elevator projection, holds no view of the back door, necessitating its being kept locked. A more welcoming design would have incorporated a registration desk where the St. John’s Bible is placed, thus allowing views to both front and back
The registration desk niche focused attention on the busy elevator projection that night. The projection’s tiles intersect the historic brick wall of the mansion, saw-cut to fit around a sandstone cornice. Weiss explains that the elevator, half in and half out of the historic building, drove the sense of a “collision” here. He meant it to be very different from the poetic way his new stair reaches for–but hesitates without touching–the historic mansion. In this he succeeds.
Botta’s lecture, entitled “Architecture and Memory,” focused on his portfolio of sacred architecture that includes chapels, a synagogue, and a cathedral. He rarely dwelt on details, although his work shows a clear mastery of them. For Botta, architecture cradles memory: it makes memory possible. The renovations at Regis College, with its thrill-ride red steel stair, will create lasting memories in all who experience it.
Peter Larisey, recalling the lecture, speaks with particular awe of Botta’s 1996 accomplishment at Ivry, France where, in a highly diverse city of many immigrants, he completed France’s first cathedral in the past century. The Ivry cathedral features a huge oculus, a theme in Botta’s work. This one is ringed by trees at the roof level. “New forms liberate us,” Larisey explains. “They are new to everyone, so they affect each person equally.” To Larisey, the diverse culture of Ivry has resonance here in Toronto, where diversity is a watchword.
Is there a deeper motive in bringing Mario Botta to Regis College? Is there a project on offer in Toronto? Larisey welcomes this question. “It’s in the air. People talk of a new Catholic cathedral in town. The existing cathedral [St. Michael’s] is in terrible shape. It takes millions just to hold it up.” Lecture committee member Sarah Hall elaborates: “There are a number of us who would love to have Botta build something in Toronto. And Toronto needs a new cathedral.” Peter Warrian adds: “Toronto is a major site of Modernist architecture: think Mies van der Rohe. In his diary, [Mies] said his one regret was that he never got a commission to do a cathedral. I have had the idea of running a juried competition for architecture students on what kind of cathedral he would have designed for Toronto. The purpose would not be to decide about St. Michael’s Cathedral; that is entirely the jurisdiction of the diocese–but to raise the profile of the dialogue between architecture and spiritual values.”
This seems like a reasonable starting point, for any work of architecture. For Botta, spirit is found in geometry and symmetry. For Larkin, spirit lies in exuberant colour and sharp surprise. At Regis College, if only for an evening, these two approaches merged, leaving lasting memories for all. CA

Jacob Allderdice teaches Interior Design at RCC Academy of Design’s new Bachelor of Interior Design program. He previously worked at Larkin Architect Limited on St. Gabriel’s Parish Church in 2005.

Client Regis College
Architect Team Kevin Weiss, John Reynolds, Roberto Chiotti, Scott Bailey, Monika Bederna, Noah Slater, Andrea Gaus, Jon Reed
Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership Ltd.
Mechanical/Electrical PPM Engineering
Landscape Vertech Landscape Architects
Interiors Larkin Architect Limited
Contractor Buttcon
Area 2,400 m2 (existing); 200 m2 (addition)
Budget $6.35 M
Completion 2010