Alsop Architects' flagship building in Toronto sails high above the street, perched on inclined stilts, an icon for Ontario College and the city
Turning the corner from Dundas Street on to McCaul in Toronto, drivers slam on their brakes and cyclists dismount to stare in amazement at a black and white checkered box perched nearly 30m into the sky on 12 multicoloured pencil-crayon legs. Will Alsop famously told journalists when he arrived on site and saw the tabletop in position: 'It looks much bigger than I imagined it in my mind. They always do. But it didn't let me down.'
Who would have thought Toronto's rundown Grange neighbourhood could be so delightful? To regenerate this urban landscape and the miserable existing OCAD (Ontario College of Art & Design) building, Canada's largest and most influential design school commissioned something special from Alsop's ingenious imagination, a sculptural icon for the city.
Nicknamed 'the flying tabletop', it is the length of a 30-storey building, tilted on its side. It glows at night, casts dramatic afternoon shadows and has a candy-coated, black and white pixelated surface. This is a sculpture that can be occupied and used as a lookout over Canada's largest city.
As a building, it seems almost movable, not a leaden, finite thing rooted to its spot.
Seen from the park the building hovers in the clouds, above the trees, its slender steel columns camouflaged by tree branches.
Toronto's four and a half million inhabitants have watched and participated as this project has evolved. From erection of the stilts to fitting the box, OCAD-watching has become an architectural spectator sport. It has created a genuine city interest in architecture, sparking unparalleled debate and curiosity.
Everyone has an opinion on the new OCAD.
The building came about through a joint venture between Alsop Architects and the Toronto-based firm Robbie Young + Wright Architects (RYWA). Instigated by Bartletttrained Gregory Woods at RYWA, who approached a former schoolmate at Alsop Architects' London office about the competition, a joint venture was formed for OCAD.
In 2000, days after Alsop received the Stirling Prize for Peckham Library, the team was awarded the commission for OCAD's extension and refurbishment, which began on site in 2002. In the wake of the critical success of this first North American project, still glowing from the RIBA Worldwide Award that was announced last week, project architect Woods is now heading up Alsop Architects' Toronto office and Alsop is confident and enthusiastic about finding new North American commissions.
'Relax and think the unthinkable, ' is Alsop's approach and, as a result, this brave new building for Toronto signals a belief in the power of good design.While many view the cityscape of Toronto, and perhaps Canada in general, as full of average or even good buildings but with few truly great examples, it now has something that goes beyond polite Modernism with fearless architectural optimism.
This is a building of its time. While the black and white checkerboard facade and interior foyer have been labelled variously 'retro' and 'futuristic', it seems we are at a loss to develop a collective response to this new architectural language. This is an experiment in process-led design, in reinvention, that goes beyond the colourful finishes and skinny, gravity defying legs. It is strange, but it is a product of its environment. This is a combination of new-build and refurbishment, which creates a successful new space for students to learn. The existing building was inward-looking, uninspiring and without a clear organising element or focus.
Alsop's massive 16,000m 2refurbishment has brought order to the existing buildings that have suffered a series of five different refurbishment schemes since 1920 - all of these trying to make things better without actually expanding the building enough to be helpful, while contributing to the clutter.
The new sunken entrance features a glass curtain wall with hints of colour, which fills in an existing courtyard (perhaps the only nice thing about the old building) and relocates the main entrance. This was part of a strategy to control access to OCAD for security and organisational reasons, by creating a focal point and allowing passage only north and south to the street. Entering the building's new four-storey entrance hall, there are two new express elevators to beam students up to the tabletop in mere seconds. This entry foyer has bright pink slashes in the ceiling, a feature found throughout the new building, marking the lighting and drawing attention to the vast volume of the space. There are views up to the catwalks that connect with the existing building. The notion of creating unprogrammed breathing space for exhibitions and informal gatherings is integral to Alsop's approach to educational building. 'An important part of doing the work is not doing the work, ' he says.
'Students need space to learn.'
It's bold, but not reckless. Built of standardised building components, it is a steel box clad with black and white aluminium panels, arranged in a conventional way, albeit nine storeys above the ground. The building's wild exterior is not reflected in the rather utilitarian internal arrangement. As expected, there are standard classrooms arranged around the perimeter with services and circulation in the centre. This twostorey facility, formally known as the 'Sharp Center for Design', houses the faculties of environmental design and industrial design as well as a painting studio, student lounge and offices on the lower floor. The upper floor houses advertising, graphic design and illustration as well as a new research centre.
Interior spaces are characterised by industrial, hard-wearing surfaces such as concrete and plaster, and by brightly painted doors and window sills. This interior feels charged with potential; students can interpret their new space by pinning up their work on the walls, which, because of the variation in window heights, they seem to have more space to do, or creating larger three-dimensional works in their new classrooms and studio spaces.
Importantly, the building feels sturdy and user-friendly, not precious. The best spaces are the large studio rooms with their generous natural lighting and views to the city.
Alsop suggested curriculum and organisational changes to 'decompartmentalise the departments'. But the usual partition walls have cropped up all over his tabletop, detracting from what could have been a large open-plan studio environment. The deep punched-out windows have large recesses for students to sit in and lean on. 'Some are so deep you can go to sleep on them, ' Alsop enthuses. The city looks absolutely inspiring from up here; students benefit from a rare chance to relate to the city from a giant observation platform in the sky.Art students need to daydream, project architect and former OCAD student Woods argues: 'The more you think about it, the more you wonder: why aren't all the other buildings raised up on sticks?'
In a broader architectural and cultural context, the OCAD building is significant in that it marks a new level of transparency, of porous community building and involving the community in creating dynamic and flexible spaces for learning. These principles can be applied to all cities, which is not to say all new buildings should be raised up on great, tapered columns. In this case, the site and planning restrictions suggested raising the building to free-up land below for community and student use, which actually adds to the quality of life of residents.
The site strategies and emphasis on consultation and innovative design present a good example for architecture to follow. In this area of downtown it is notoriously difficult under existing planning regulations to expand existing buildings. (The Art Gallery of Ontario tried unsuccessfully for many years to get a scheme approved and is now saddled with local concerns over Frank Gehry's gallery scheme. ) Alsop managed to get his controversial OCAD past planning in a mere 12 weeks. There were no objections.
There was no sleight of hand. He held extensive public consultation meetings with local residents, the college community and the general public. He held workshops where he could 'challenge, interpret, interact and discuss the brief ' with everyone involved. In short, he charmed them, and his quirky, unconventional 'flying shoebox' won their hearts and approval. 'It is a place apart, it should look different, ' Alsop says of OCAD.
The residents of the adjacent Grange Village housing development were worried about preserving their view of the nearby park, which they could see across the existing south parking lot of OCAD. By raising the building above their line of sight Alsop wanted to 'drag the park through' to link the residential area and the park. Who wouldn't prefer a south-facing, landscaped park, maintained by the university, to a parking lot?
This area opens out from the new student lounge and promises to be widely used by students. The success of this little space comes from the height of the tabletop above.
In an attempt to create a sheltered canopy space there is a full 27m from ground to soffit, enough to welcome visitors and get light from all sides to the farthest corner. On my first visit to the building, standing under the tabletop on a rainy, cold March morning, it seemed the space soaked up all the sun it could to provide a sheltered and sunny spot to rest while looking up at the tabletop above. Alsop calls the underside of the table top the 'sixth facade' because he envisaged this steel framed box as an object, clad all the way around.
Next to this space, the corner 'Aboveground Art Supply' building, which Alsop was granted permission to remove but chose not to, may not 'fit in' with the new OCAD look. But it defines the space under the tabletop - the corner, crucially, marking the intimacy of this almost 'courtyard' space.
Looking to the future, Alsop is quick to point out that he envisages a phase two for this project; it was granted permission to extend north along the site. It would be fantastic if this future expansion could incorporate a roof terrace lookout over the city, as was proposed in the original OCAD scheme.
This building is most remarkable in its boldness, its unapologetic inability to blend into the surrounding dull cityscape. OCAD is a very confident building. It is undoubtedly Alsop's most mature project. It is not a watered down version of a grand gesture; it is the grand gesture. It takes its place as one of the most important buildings in Toronto's history. It is the culmination of years of testing architectural theories and approaches; his ideas didn't land here from outer space as his detractors would argue. 'It's a horizontal plane of social discourse, ' Alsop winks, 'all sorts of exciting things go on underneath a table.'
CREDITS TABLETOP TENDER DATE December 2002 START ON SITE February 2003 CONTRACT DURATION 12 months OCCUPATION September 2004 AREA Building expansion (inc 6,041m 2 tabletop) 7,800m 2Renovation 16,000m 2TABLETOP FACTS 9m high x 31m wide x 84m long (inc two floors) Stands 27m above ground on six pairs of 20m multi-coloured legs COST ($ CANADIAN) Total $42.5 million Tabletop $21,849,250 FORM OF CONTRACT CCDC II 1994 CLIENT Ontario College of Art & Design ARCHITECT Alsop Architects: Will Alsop, Jonathan Leah, Isabel Brebbia, Oliver Blumschein, Christian Harrup, Anthony Murray, Stephen Swain, Lilli Pschill, Sven Steiner Robbie Young + Wright Architects: Iman Ajlani, Sean Boucher, Vladimir Carelli, Brody Carrick, Paul Dimartino, Sara Elliot, Andra Hayward, Eric Johnson, Chris Kerr-Strefford, Yew Thong Leong, Lisa Ljevaja, Ray Makimoto, Cathy Misiaszek, Ricardo Maturana, Suresh Patel, Jacek Pryzgodzki, Zubair Qureshi, Caroline Robbie-Montgomery, Ronny Sepulveda, Karl Wong, Greg Woods, Jamie Wright STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Carruthers & Wallace SERVICES ENGINEER MCW Consultants CIVIL ENGINEER Cansult Engineers & Project Managers LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT YWLA LIGHTING DESIGNER Stephen Pollard Lighting & Production Design CODE CONSULTANT Hine Reichard Tomilin COST CONSULTANT Hanscomb CONSTRUCTION MANAGER PHA Project Management Consultants GENERAL CONTRACTOR PCL Constructors Canada SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Concrete JDR Construction; masonry Clifford Restoration; structural steel Walters; intumescent paint system Carboline; metal/glass curtain wall Global Architectural Metals; corrugated aluminium siding system Flynn Canada; fibre reinforced cement panel system Eternit; modified bitumen roofing Bakor; laminated glazing Prelco; glazing coloured film Vanceva; hollow metal doors Newport; aluminium door frames Kawneer; locksets Schlage; hinges Stanley; door closers LCN; exit devices Von Durpin; door pulls CBH; perforated vinyl acoustic panels Decoustics;
paints, stains ICI Dulux, Benjamin Moore, AR Monteith; flooring LM Schofiled CO (Lithochrome Chemstain); floor slab waterproofing Duochem & Tremco; carpet Interface; perforated window film 3M; tiles Olympia lockers General Storage Systems; downlighters Metalumen, Cooper; speciality coloured lighting Encapsulite COST SUMMARY Based on tender sum, for gross internal area of tabletop.For furniture:
reused existing.For communications installation: separate budget. Cost data converted from Canadian currency at $1 cdn = £0.404 Cost per Percentage m 2(£) of SUBSTRUCTURE 100.2 7.4 SUPERSTRUCTURE Frame, upper floors, staircases 498.5 36.9 Roof 32.3 2.4 External walls 106.7 7.9 Windows, external doors 31.5 2.3 Internal walls and partitions 63.0 4.7 Internal doors 8.1 0.6 Group element total 740.1 54.8 INTERNAL FINISHES 13.7 1.0 SERVICES Sanitary, services equipment 11.3 0.8 Space heating, air treatment, water 111.1 8.2 Electrical services 84.4 6.3 Lift and conveyor installations 111.1 8.2 Protective installations 35.1 2.6 Group element total 353.1 26.2 EXTERNAL WORKS 26.7 2.0 PRELIMINARIES, OVERHEADS, PROFIT 116.4 8.6 TOTAL 1,350.2 100 Cost data provided by PHA Project Management Consultants WEBLINKS Ontario College of Art & Design www. ocad. on. ca Alsop Architects www. alsoparchitects. coma Robbie Young + Wright Architects www. rwyarch. ca Carruthers & Wallace www. cw-eng. com MCW Consultants www. mcw-ers. com Cansult Engineers & Project Managers www. cansult. com Hanscomb www. hanscomb. com