Constructing aspiration

Exploring the architecture of U of T and how it affects the mindsets of students

By Katherine Dupont and Adam Zachary
Published: 3:02 am, 14 November 2013

Photos ALICE XUE | Doodles NANCY JI, KAWMADIE KARUNAYAKE & MARI ZHOU

Weaving through the tree-lined paths that cross our campus, one might look to either side and feel as though they are walking between different worlds: namely, University College — our oldest labyrinth — and the brutalist pile that is home to our medical faculty. These paths could be passages between buildings or centuries. The landscape is unified by the changing seasons and the CN Tower.

Our university is a beautiful place: often hopeless, hellish, and hectic, but surrounded by beauty nonetheless. The campus is housed in the heart of Toronto and built up in waves that spill from the central towers and cloisters of University College. The buildings surround us in an architectural mosaic as diverse as the student body, packed full of exemplars of Gothic, Romanesque, neoclassical, modern, and postmodern styles.

varsity architecture 079This variety in the built environment is both interesting and reflective of the greater city of Toronto. It is sure to provide at least a few buildings to please each bright, young, studious set of eyes — but how does it affect our minds? Is scribbling out a test in a fluorescent, whitewashed, cinderblock cellar really so different from lazily writing in a fine oak-panelled parlour? We learn the same things in either room, coughing up the same information, so why do we favour the high ceilings and shadows of the older buildings over the banal Sid Smith and McLennan labs?

Architectural determinism is the concept that our built environment can affect and modify our behaviour. The most notable and quotable example is the theoretical “panopticon prison,” in which inmates may be observed at all times from a guard tower that sprouts from the middle of the circular complex (not to draw too strong a parallel with the watchful arrow-slit windows of Robarts). Is it possible that our experience of the university is a result of the forms that its buildings take?

 

A university in a city 

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The University of Toronto is notable for outstanding academics and brilliant achievements in all fields of research.  Ours is consistently ranked among the world’s greatest universities — in 2013, we were ranked eighth in the world for scientific performance by NTU; seventeenth in the world overall by QS; and twenty-first internationally by Times Higher Education. According to most rankings, our school is unmatched by any other in Canada.

What we lack compared to the Ivy League and Oxbridge universities that we rank side-by-side with is a distinct character and a cohesive community. The Canadian universities that rank near us, such as Western and Queen’s, seem to our outsider eyes to have very tight-knit student bodies that wear their school colours with pride, both on and off campus. These universities seem to have more of a team spirit — perhaps because they are smaller schools — and each consists of one clearly defined campus that dominates the surrounding small cities of London and Kingston respectively. These towns are known to us as “university towns,” a category of which there is no risk of Toronto becoming a member.

U of T has a far greater population than these schools, and is spread across three large campuses — each providing a thoroughly different experience. At the St. George campus, the student body is split up into seven undergraduate colleges and many more subdivisions of professional faculties, theological colleges, and so on. There is little opportunity for students to come together meaningfully. An overwhelming majority of students live off campus, some commuting as many as two hours every morning.

There is also an absence of a uniform aesthetic in architecture and planning that could reinforce our identity. There is little to differentiate the St. George campus from other parts of downtown Toronto that feature a few beautiful relics of the past in valleys bordered by sheer cliffs of concrete and plate glass.

 

Modernism takes over

Robarts

In keeping with the twentieth-century trend in North American urban planning, rapid overdevelopment in the postwar era led to the abandonment of heritage preservation as a priority in building the campus. Toronto adopted modernism, and its university followed.

Modernist architectural theory embraced buildings as “machines for living” that should be efficient, insular, without ornament, and isolated from the streets: criteria often fulfilled with the aid of stern and featureless exterior walls.

On the St. George campus, modernism was first exemplified by the Mechanical Engineering Building (1947) and Elmsley Hall (1955). At first, these must have seemed like embassies of a blind and heavy-footed alien race. Soon they were joined by a dozen similar buildings, such as the McLennan Physical Laboratories (1967) and the much-reviled Sidney Smith Hall (1961).  We accept these buildings now as unfortunate facts of the St. George landscape, but rarely consider the noble arches that fell to make way for them.

The modernist movement carried with it an indomitable egotism that insisted it was revolutionary. Its disregard for the preservation of old buildings and their styling was akin to an erasure of history. Unlike others, U of T was easily wooed by modernism, and since it is not as old as most of the world’s other great schools, most of the original core buildings had not been around for relatively long when they fell victim to the movement. The brutalist anthill we know as the Medical Science Building (1969) now stands on the site of the original Biological Building and the original Skule; both were demolished in 1966 — long before they reached 100 years of age.

 

Identity loss 

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Was U of T moving toward a distinct identity? The old Biological Building, replaced by the plain and disappointing Ramsay Wright Laboratories, was a Romanesque stone mansion that recalled the windows of University College and the heavy but soft shapes of the Victoria College castle. The old Skule was a Gothic block that echoed the Royal Conservatory and St. Michael’s College.

Neoclassicism was also common to the School of Household Sciences — now the Lillian Massey building, the demolished “new” King’s College, and the demolished Chemistry Building. The university had not yet settled on a style, but it was still young.

Much of St. George Street  and Huron Street were once lined with residences built for Toronto’s upper- and middle-classes, professors, and fraternities — for example, 24 homes once stood on the half block now occupied by Sid Smith. As many as 200 did not survive the rapid expansion of our campus. Many of them were standard bay-gable or Second Empire row houses, but some, especially on the western side of St. George Street, were grander homes that could have been repurposed rather than bulldozed.

For an idea of how the street once looked, walk the northern end of St. George Street, where some of them were indeed preserved and integrated with the campus. The mansion that now cornerstones the new Rotman addition was once home to the Department of Classics, and a stretch of three remaining houses have become part of Woodsworth College.

 

“A quintessentially postmodern campus”

Leading geographer David Harvey writes that the postmodern “…urban fabric [is] necessarily fragmented, a palimpsest of past forms superimposed upon one another…” By his definition, U of T has become a quintessentially postmodern campus.

Why has the university followed the path of fragmentation while other top schools have held fast to their roots in architectural tradition? Yale University recently commissioned the world-renowned historicist-architect Robert Stern, responsible for the gleaming white condominium that casts a morning shadow down Charles Street, to design two new residential colleges that will heavily borrow from and fit in with its nineteenth-century neighbours. Newer colleges at Oxford, such as Green Templeton (2008) and Kellogg (1994), opted to renovate old homes and institutional buildings rather than demolish and build anew. The University of Tokyo — which is perhaps of more comparable age, size, and global status to U of T — has opted to shift most new construction to its periphery to preserve its nineteenth-century core. The university is long past having decided against preserving its architectural heritage — but with the adoption of fragmentation, it will soon have even less of a stylistically defined core to discern.

Dealing with construction is just as much a part of life on campus as it is across the rest of the city. In our lifetimes, the Bahen Centre has risen at the south end of St. George, and the Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building has newly crowned the southern corner of Queen’s Park. On the north end of campus, the new Munk Centre has just opened in the thoughtfully renovated Meteorological Building, and before many of us graduate, the angled columns of the new Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport will loom over Devonshire Place.

It is an exciting time to watch the campus change around us, but all of this new development is still not moving in any one distinct direction. The university administration seems to have no desire to unify campus; rather, it seems to be more interested in simply commissioning whatever is in vogue at the time of planning. Our walks to class have become walks through an exhibition of architectural fashion over time. Consider how different these four new buildings are, and what different impressions they would give if a new student were to see one of them upon first visiting the campus.

 

Towards coherency 

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New construction at St. George does not present or suggest any specific aspirations as U of T’s oldest buildings do. The neoclassical columns and heaven-minded towers which once decorated the campus, nodding to the Greeks and Romans studied within the buildings, have been replaced by modernist stand-ins. Elegant feats of stone and metal that could once inspire passing young engineers are also long gone.

Much of our campus is visually unpleasant, full of tired brashness — but we are still surrounded by the beauty that is ongoing. Few of us could deny the science fiction appeal of the Donnelly Centre’s DNA patterns or the soaring atrium of Victoria College’s new Goldring Centre. Maybe U of T was nearing an architectural archetype before the crush of modernism and mess of its aftermath, and maybe it is unknowingly nearing one once again.

Though incoherently, our school is redefining itself, and our lives will change with it. Every physical cause has an effect, from the raising of roofs to the falling of leaves. The sun begins to set at 5:00 pm, and the rapidly changing colours cast different lights across the gargoyles of University College. Every tower’s peak casts a long shadow across streets and quads, like a sundial that counts down the sun setting on another school day.

Some think that fall is the most picturesque season on our campus, with the falling tide of orange and red leaves bringing promises of winter. In our little world from College up to Bloor, we think that winter is more beautiful. Snow covers our campus like an equalizer, covers each hard line of windowsill and soft curve of roof in a white togetherness. Everything feels more like a home, connected by a common thread. Hopefully, in the long and bright future of this school, our planners and architects will find some common threads and tie them tighter together.

  • Jonah Letovsky

    This is fantastic, and very comprehensive. Something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Great job.

  • Erik J Bracciodieta

    I greatly enjoyed this article. I appreciate the desire for architectural unity as it would serve to create a greater sense of identity for U of T’s large student population. But I fear this idea stands in stark contrast to what makes U of T unique, especially given its Canadian context: it is a large, multifaceted university totally integrated into a rich, urban landscape. I relish the fact that U of T is not the backbone of a university town. The infinite possibility made available by urbanity should not be tamed by one dominant architectural theme. The range of human experience should be cherished and U of T has a respectable variety of a architectural experiences. Yes, the Medical Sciences Building and Robarts are Brutalist piles and they are not particularly pretty. But cities are not about prettiness or uniformity. They are about variety, both welcome and unpleasant. I look forward to U of T’s architectural evolution and hopes it continues to engage with its urban context.

  • Vshh

    Fantastic article! I agree that U of T needs some sense of architectural unity, but I do not know if it needs to be so pronounced. U of T’s strength comes from the variety of experiences it offers to its students, and I feel like its buildings reflect that, in some odd way.