Vital Organ

Academic Resource Centre, University of Toronto at Scarborough, Toronto, Ontario
Brian MacKay-Lyons Architect Inc.

The recently completed Academic Resource Centre (ARC) by Brian MacKay-Lyons with Rounthwaite Dick and Hadley is an interesting addition to a significant building in Canada’s architectural legacy: Scarborough College, by John Andrews with Page and Steele. MacKay-Lyons’ two-storey addition incorporates a new central library serving the entire University of Toronto at Scarborough campus, along with a new 500-seat lecture hall suitable for live performances. With 80,000 square feet of new construction, there is also 18,000 square feet of renovated space that enables the building to integrate itself with the original campus. Although this portion of the project is as yet incomplete, its intentions to rectify some of the unfortunate modifications made during the 1970s are apparent. The ARC also strengthens Baird Sampson Neuert’s new Master Plan for the future of the campus while presenting a strong response to a difficult context and the challenges of a growing campus. The concept for ARC evolved from a participatory design process involving various user groups. From those discussions, concepts from the Great Mosque in Cordoba emerged as precedents for flexibility within a rigorous structural grid and in its ability to offer non-hierarchical approaches towards the building, though not for its Moorish aesthetic.

The original campus, with its iconic chimneys and massive use of site-cast concrete caused initial controversy when viewed as architecture that is a massive, introspective and snaking complex overlooking a valley located far from the cultural centre of the region in Toronto. It was built during a time of considerable university expansion in Canada: a period that includes the construction of Simon Fraser and Trent Universities. But Scarborough College was an ambitious social and architectural exercise that has become an architectural landmark and a defining example of 1960s architecture in Canada. It is interesting to note the difference in approaches to the design of current university projects to those of the late 1960s.

Currently under construction at Scarborough is a student residence by Baird Sampson Neuert/Montgomery Sisam Associates, a student centre by Dunlop Architects and a management building by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects. These projects are representative of current stakeholder requirements in university building. The danger in this approach to the architecture results in a need for either a signature building, or a building that illustrates bureaucracy itself. While the contextual results of these projects remain to be seen, the Academic Resource Centre (ARC) appears to be the only project that responds most sincerely to its existing context. The ARC has appropriately arranged its architectural syntax to either compliment or depart from the original campus plan. At times, it achieves both.

What is immediately striking upon approaching the building is the exterior copper cladding. The standing seam copper skin wraps the building’s exterior and folds over to form the theatre roof. This use of material is viewed as an effective design solution, given its context and adjacency to its rather large Brutalist neighbour. Despite some initial technical problems with perfecting the installation of the cladding, the understatedness and richness achieved through the patina of the copper cladding complements the strength of the massive Inca-like concrete structures initially laid out by Andrews.

The siting of the ARC serves many functions. The building locks into the original complex to the west, while fortifying an axis along the external paths leading toward the new residences and management building to the east. The ARC is envisioned by MacKay-Lyons as a ‘town square’ or ‘intellectual heart’ for the university, and as such, provides an effective evolution to the direction of the campus’ development.

The internal components are clearly delineated through an economy of means. Referencing the language of internal walkways, overlooks, and the use of natural light found in Andrews’ building, the ARC provides both spontaneous and formal nodes, or opportunities for study and socializing. The use of a limited material palette is described by MacKay-Lyons as an ‘infrastructure approach’. Thus, the repetitive elements of concrete columns, ground-faced concrete block walls, suspended and exposed circulation system, and cherry plywood millwork all serve as a means of demarcating spaces, from points of arrival to back-of-house activities. With the completion of the Doris McCarthy Gallery in the spring of 2004, the aesthetic of the ARC will be further integrated into the greater built fabric of the campus.

As with much of his work, MacKay-Lyons continues to invoke his fascination with boats, but not without success. Much of the organizing principle of ARC is based upon the notion of 25-foot wide “boats” being “docked” inside the grid. These docked elements become stacks for books, study rooms or the main lecture theatre, which is the largest of the “boats.” The lecture theatre is treated like a large ark that rests upon a concrete plinth and is embraced by two concrete walls framing an architectural focus to the project. The deployment of docking elements also sets up a series of negative spaces which are defined through a series of double-height circulation alleys with suspended walkways running between the “boats” and overlooking the transverse “streets” that cut through the “boats” and create opportunities for nodes of social gathering, in addition to enabling natural light to flood into the building. The exterior copper shell is allowed to remain somewhat raw in its finishing and detailing on the interior. It reveals galvanized steel back-up panels and an exposed steel frame, in certain areas.

Both MacKay-Lyons’ and Andrews’ design concepts are remarkably similar. Andrews designed Scarborough College along an internal street as a response to the cold winters, and as a rejection of the established college concept of scattered buildings. MacKay-Lyons uses some of Andrews’ architectural devices, such as nodes and overlooks, but incorporates them quite differently into a matrix that is enmeshed into the plan, rather than a linear path. For MacKay-Lyons, the multi-functional matrix of spaces through the ARC allows for the mechanical equipment to logically circulate through the project and remain exposed. When reviewing Scarborough College in 1966, Ray Affleck noted, “of major importance is the participation of mechanical elements, along with structure and human use in the determination of form.” (see CA, May 1966). Like MacKay-Lyons, Andrews’ concern for the integration of mechanical equipment played a significant role in this well-tempered environment.

Much of the architecture emanating from the interior of the ARC is advantageous to the building’s exterior. Like Andrews, MacKay-Lyons applies rhythm, counterpoint and definition to the rather long elevations. Unlike Andrews’ building, the ARC’s main entrance along the south faade in particular, is much more permeable and approachable, and allows for generous amounts of sunlight along its main circulation corridor. This south entrance is also assisted by the rigour of the grid which extends southward to delineate an exterior courtyard. The eastern and northern faades are afforded landscapes that, when complete, may successfully extend the formality of the ARC’s grid toward the exterior. These faades contain a minimum number of openings, in response to the climate of the site.

When reviewing the College in 1966, Affleck noted, “it becomes apparent that one is experiencing a strong architectural statement of relationship, of communication, of ratio…the statement is achieved mainly by the pedestrian circulation network and a clearly stated ratio between dynamic and static space-uses. Another significant relationship that is expressed within this network is the ratio between important events such as intersections,
linkages, alcoves and the general continuity of pedestrian circulation.” The ARC’s design allows an extension to this comment and evolves Andrews’ 1960s experiment into a contemporary reality.

Overall, MacKay-Lyons has responded architecturally to the intentions of John Andrews’ Scarborough College. The ARC avoids paying mere lip service to the formalism of the existing architectural and site context of the original campus design. The Centre represents the value of the original campus while setting the stage for its future.

Client: University of Toronto

Architect team: Brian MacKay-Lyons, Rob Boyko, Talbot Sweetapple, Dave Premi, Melanie Hayne, Momin Hoq, Kevin McCluskey, Carlos Tavares, Dan Herljevic, Justin Bennett, Diana Carl, Geoff Miller, Dean Poffenroth

Structural: Peter Sheffield & Associates

Mechanical: Keen Engineering

Electrical: Hidi Rae Consulting Engineers Ltd.

Acoustical: Aercoustics Ltd.

Library consultant: Shoalts & Zaback Architects

Campus heritage consultant: Jim Sykes

Code consultant: Leber/Rubes Inc.

Programming consultant: Roger Jones and Associates

Area: 9000 m2

Budget: $15 million

Completion: Fall 2003

Photography: Steven Evans unless noted