Architecture on the campus

In University, I was a regular contributor to our campus magazine, The Underground. Here’s one of my favourite articles that I wrote for them. Basically, I’m talking about how the modern expansions to the campus our affecting its social atmsphere, and community.

The University of Toronto (UTSC) was built by 1966, and many of the buildings on campus directly reflect the brutalist style of architecture that was prominent at that time. Our campus was created with the idea in mind that it would foster a sense of community, and connect the departments to one another through underground walkways, and a large room in the middle of one of the main buildings that we call “the Meeting Place”.  Now, as the campus continues to expand, we have come to see the introduction of more modern architectural styles to it, and these are making their own impact on the social atmosphere of the campus. Believe it or not, the brutalist style was considered relatively beautiful in the 60s and 70s, and at this time brutalist buildings were thought of as refined and especially modern because of their simplistic and functional design. In this way, the UTSC campus is largely reflective of the time period in which it was built, just as the Instructional Center (IC building), the Environmental Science and Chemistry building (ESCB), and the Pan Am Center (TPASC), all reflect this more modern era. Architectural design does not evolve randomly and so there is a reason why these more recent additions to the campus were designed and built the way they were. The evolution of architecture is not only dependent on what is considered beautiful at the time, but also on the structural function in demand during the era in which it is made. One famous example of this concept was prominent in the 1960s; during the time of the Cold War people built bomb shelters on their properties to protect them from the supposedly imminent war. Steven Heller wrote an article for The Atlantic on this very subject, and how a mass number of buildings were designed for destruction. During an interview, he stated that “The threat [of the war] was omnipresent. Like the air” (Heller, 2011). It is no coincidence that brutalism was a popular architectural style during, and for some time after, the Cold War era; people were feeling uneasy about their safety, and needed these thick concrete structures as a vessel. This is only one example of how an architect not only designs buildings, but also shapes realities.

Thus, when looking back on the context that inspired the brutalist architectural style, it is not hard to understand why it was chosen. So what contexts in the modern era influence how our structural surroundings are built? If we are talking specifically about Canada, it is apparent simply by looking through the clear glass structures that surround us, that we are not worried about constructing thick concrete walls to protect us from war. Although our buildings are more fragile, they serve a different purpose than those of the past. Our modern buildings reflect the needs of today’s society. Environmental concerns are overarching in the realm of architects, and they are always trying to think of new ways to construct more environmentally friendly and sustainable buildings. Donald Schmitt, of Diamond and Schmitt Architects, makes an interesting point in his Ted Talk at UTSC that buildings are responsible for 50% of all energy consumption (Schmitt, 2015). In particular, glass is marketed as being a more sustainable option for buildings, as it’s widely agreed that “glass is a fully recyclable material”. Additionally, it “saves precious natural resources”, allows humans to retain more vitamin D, and thus “safeguard[s] people’s health and well-being” (Glass Alliance Europe, 2015). As an aside, more research is yet to be on the actual benefits of glass as a building material. Nevertheless, buildings are designed with environmental sustainability in mind, as it is a prominent concern for our society as we try to reduce our energy consumption. This will be especially important when working towards our goal of reducing carbon emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Diamond and Schmitt Architects designed the IC building and the ESCB, and the designs intentionally reflect neoteric ideologies present in the context of the campus. With concerns of environmental sustainability so prominent in society and on campus, the architects recognized the need for sustainable buildings at UTSC as it increasingly modernizes and expands. In fact, the ESCB’s sustainable features include, according to the university website, “geothermal boreholes, an Earth Tube system to supply 100 percent fresh air to the administrative wing, unique fritted glazing to minimize solar heat gain, all LED lighting fixtures and a high performance curtainwall”. It is apparent, in this way, that architectural designs of buildings support a solution to the issues of the time. Like the brutalist buildings before them, these new buildings on the UTSC campus will reflect the era in which they were built. Many architects consider it a significant part of their job to not only design buildings, but to design them with the current cultural and physical landscape of the time in mind. For example, Diamond and Schmitt Architects designed the IC building and the ESCB in consideration of the subjects that would be taught in them, the direct context in which they would be situated, and the values of the university in general. In this way, they demonstrated their belief that a building’s design impacts its context just as context impacts the design of a building.

The brutalist style was not only chosen for its presumed potential to protect its occupants from violent conditions. The UTSC website states in their historical timeline of the school that “John Andrews’s design for the campus intended to forge interaction among disciplines, teachers and students”. This might explain why the graduation hallway connects the BV Wing with the Humanities and Science Wing of the school, as well as why the Humanities Wing seems to melt into the Science Wing as one makes their way through the campus. Even in the 60s, when the school was first built, the architect seemed to be able to design the community atmosphere of the campus as it stands today. Now our campus is known for its sense of collectivity, and the way that it seems to foster relationships between students, staff members, and professors. It seems that this is not only due to the campus’s small size, but also to Andrew’s design and vision for it. The way the departments, wings, and sections of the campus are physically connected represents the interconnectedness of the body of student life. As the campus expands, I have heard many complaints about how far away the IC building, and the new gym are from the main campus. This might not solely be due to the inconvenience that it poses for students, who must now take an extra 10 minutes to walk to the gym from across the campus, but also to the increased sense of segregation that the new campus design implicitly supports. Now it is widely known that the IC building is meant for students in the management program, and it is therefore rare for students outside of this program to interact with those taking part in it. The same goes for the ESCB and, even if it’s to a lesser extent, the MW building.

It is important to recognize that we live in a constructed environment, and that the design of each building impacts the atmosphere of a community. Because of this we should play a participatory role in considering the designs of the buildings that surround us. In Donald Schmitt’s talk, he additionally highlights the impact of architecture on a society and emphasizes how architects can design buildings that community members can participate in. A well-designed building or urban space should not negatively disturb the environment in which it is constructed, but add to and benefit its social and physical context through the consideration of the area’s heritage and natural environment. Schmitt states in the talk that “now it is possible to not have buildings as net users as energy, but net producers of energy. We are working on a couple of buildings now that will actually be able to be zero carbon footprint and zero energy use” (Schmitt, 2015). With this consideration of each building’s impact on its surroundings, Diamond and Schmitt Architects are able to create buildings that function as tools that are instrumental in supporting solutions to today’s important issues, such as the crucial concern of environmental conservation. Schmitt finishes his talk by arguing that it is important to recognize the potential of architecture in improving the conditions where we can create and innovate, as well as the architect’s responsibility to reduce the 50% energy commitment of buildings down much closer to zero. He goes further by challenging the audience to think about “how we can together as architects, designers, and the community most importantly…make that change happen”.

In the 60s, the campus was designed to foster a sense of community and connectedness by constructing a physical space that represented one. The buildings that Diamond and Schmitt have designed as new additions to the Scarborough campus are beautiful and sustainable, but it is important for students and designers to keep the campus’s original intended atmosphere in mind. As the campus matures and develops a reputation in its own right, the sustainable functions of new buildings must be considered, but it is also important to design buildings with their context in mind. Placement and connectedness of buildings to their environment shape social interactions, and ultimately the social atmosphere of a campus. We have had guests come to our Scarborough campus, and have heard them compliment it on the sense of community that it provokes upon taking in its atmosphere. Let us not forget the value in our campus’s already established features and reputation, as it would be a shame to lose sight of these values for the sake of rushed industrial development of the campus. As the UTSC campus moves steadily towards a greener campus and more sustainably built structures, let us also consider the effects of development on our campus community

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