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Table for two

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Fresh from their Alsop/OCAD 'flying tabletop'adventure in Toronto, it would seem the sky's the limit for Gregory Woods and Caroline Robbie of Robbie Young + Wright In its first joint venture with Alsop Architects, Toronto firm Robbie Young + Wright (RYW) has contributed a striking new addition to the changing city skyline with its extension and refurbishment to the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) (see pages 28-25). Gregory Woods is the partner in charge of the project for the firm, and instigated the collaboration of OCAD with Alsop's London office, which beat 35 other competition hopefuls to build the new extension.

Nicknamed the 'flying tabletop', the winning scheme elevates a two-storey box 26 metres into the air, giving students spectacular city views, protecting residents' views of a nearby park and creating a unique courtyard below. The project provides a new studio and faculty space in the 'tabletop', and refurbishes the five existing campus buildings below.

The scheme rivals another of Toronto's most important projects, the Skydome Stadium, which Roderick Robbie completed in 1989 after his 10-person firm won the enormous commission. Robbie teamed up in a permanent joint venture to build the project, and RYW was born. The firm now has eight partners, 70 staff and, although it remains based in Toronto, it has an office in Vancouver and affiliated offices in Kansas City, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Tampa.

When I meet Woods at a trendy bistro, frequented by architects in Toronto's West End, he is remarkably relaxed and easygoing, looking younger than his 39 years, despite the stress and excitement of having completed what many consider the most important and controversial building in Toronto's history.Woods is a people person, a natural storyteller at ease with himself and confident in his abilities.He is also a talented designer, as evident from his quick rise to the top at RYW and probably due in part to the time he spent at art school. He has not taken the standard route in architecture, instead following his own inclinations. When he describes his background, his choices of study and professional projects, it becomes clear he is passionate about design and the collaborative nature of this project.

Appropriately, Woods studied at the OCAD in the 1980s before taking up architecture at Ryerson University, where he completed a technical degree. After graduating, he moved to London in 1990 and began diploma studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture. He enjoys collaborating with Will Alsop, with whom he has a lot in common. Both have an experimental and process-oriented approach to design. Both believe in the power of collaboration and the possibility of architecture to influence and be influenced by other arts. Like Alsop, Woods is also an educator. He is currently teaching a final-year studio at Ryerson.

Woods was in charge of the consultation process integral to the success of the building. He has a good track record for consultation through involvement in a dozen educational projects in the past seven years, and realised that in preparing a planning application that violated nearly every site restriction, working with user groups and residents would be critical.

By discussing and reflecting on the scheme as it unfolded, rather than unveiling some sort of final, grand plan for the site, they achieved success. In a mere two years, while keeping the campus operational at all times, Woods led the Toronto team in delivering an exceptional facility that has skyrocketed the university's international profile and created much-needed social cohesion in a rather neglected downtown area.

'An enclosed shed was just not an option on this site, 'Woods states. Since he was born and raised in the area, he has a personal stake in the project. 'This is really what Toronto needed, 'Woods says, referring to the climate of discussion and debate about architecture and urban design created by the new OCAD.

Woods worked closely with designer Caroline Robbie, daughter of Roderick, who brought to the project her diverse background in interior design, stage, lighting and fashion design, drawing, painting and architecture, as well as a quality portfolio of educational design experience. Robbie also trained at the OCAD, dividing her time between the main Toronto campus and the Florence, Italy, campus. She then also moved on to Ryerson University to train as an interior designer. Her mother had studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and her father at Regent Street Polytechnic in London.

Robbie says she likes working at an architecture firm, that it's what she was surrounded by when she was growing up. She finds interior design 'fundamentally different yet complementary' to architecture, and delights in 'contributing to buildings that usually don't get to see interior design - like schools'. Her role is usually to push the boundaries of balancing an interesting interior with what the clients want, what they think they want, and what they can afford.

'The grand gestures are great - but I'm more focused on what people touch and use on a regular basis, ' she says of her role as the interior designer who helped conceive OCAD's dramatic interiors. Among the accent colours are brilliant orange, vibrant yellow, hot pink and lime green - colour choices that are as wacky and creative as the overall form and reinforce the playfulness of the design. The colours for the 'legs' and interiors were inspired by Alsop's painting palette. To achieve a colour match, Robbie coordinated the sampling of Alsop's hues and contacting manufacturers to create the perfect colours for OCAD.

Currently, Woods and Robbie are working on another university project, this time a more restrained project for Guelph University a few hours away. They have just finished the Yonge Hearts Child Care Centre, which was designed and built around the same time as OCAD, and has been another critical success. The geometric-patterned facade and vibrant colours have a similarly theatrical flavour to the nearby OCAD.

The pair are thrilled to be working with Alsop Architects', and more Canadian projects are on the horizon. And what a horizon it is, with the new OCAD sailing above the skyline, giving students a chance to paint in the clouds and engaging passers-by with the delightful product of architectural innovation and vivid imagination.

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