As buildings go, Toronto’s Best Institute is something of a beater, a stuffy red-brick box from the 1950s. And yet its aging halls are full of young people and young companies; it is a hub for research and for software startups.
Soon the University of Toronto plans to tear the structure down and replace it with a sculptural 14-storey tower led by Weiss/Manfredi Architects that will be stocked with vertical gardens, brightly sunlit collaboration spaces, the latest IT infrastructure and cafés.
That project, the Partnerships in Innovation and Entrepreneurship (PIE) Complex, represents a new genre of building: Call it innovation architecture. It is a space designed to bolster the introduction of new ideas in tech and engineering, to encourage collaboration across boundaries and with private business.
Innovation architecture is something of a paradox. Tech companies, and creatives, tend to favour old buildings; but innovation centres such as PIE attempt to channel the qualities of old lofts into new structures. They are designed with adaptable and bright workspaces, counterbalanced by large volumes of space for informal work, socializing and conversations that generate new ideas.
Gilbert Delgado, the University of Toronto’s chief of planning, design and construction, captures this formula as he describes the PIE facility. “We’re looking to create very flexible work spaces, and also facilitate social and professional exchange,” he says of the building. Its 14 storeys will house university researchers, administration and startup companies focused on artificial intelligence. The building will be pierced by a series of multistorey atriums with vertical gardens, where people can enjoy the views and the greenery, see each other and, if they are able, wander upstairs or downstairs a level for a chat.
“Researchers can be in their labs, and have gracious places to go several times a day, to take a break and have spontaneous encounters," he says.
This model – flexible spaces, with lobbies and halls where you can bump into colleagues and cook up great ideas – evokes the legacy of tech company offices and a Silicon Valley myth. It goes like this: Once upon a time, entrepreneurs came up with world-changing inventions in their suburban garages; from there, companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Apple were born. And while they were working in suburban office parks, they aspired to the openness and messiness of old urban loft buildings.
A touchstone here is the old Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. That three-storey wood structure was cheaply built as a temporary space during the Second World War; but it survived, and its maze-like halls wound up hosting researchers in electronics, nuclear science, linguistics and other fields. Good conversation happened constantly. “It looked like it was going to fall apart,” Noam Chomsky, who had an office there for decades, recalled in a 2011 interview. “But it was extremely interactive.”
Some tech companies have looked to Building 20 as a model. In 2015, Facebook opened a new office building, designed by Frank Gehry, that borrows its name from Building 20 and also some of its character: The Facebook building is an open space littered with plywood boxes and exposed steel beams. The explicit idea is to encourage a sense of informality and roughness; this is a building where ideas can get kicked around, and if they scratch the walls, no problem.
But that’s missing the point, according to the architects Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi of Weiss/Manfredi. They argue that the garage myth has led people in the wrong direction; what matters is not the material quality of a building. “The key is that people are within eyesight of each other,” Weiss says, “even if they’re corporate and academic people who might not usually rub shoulders.”
At York University in northwest Toronto, the Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence pursues that goal of spurring spontaneous encounters. The building is designed to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration. It has no lecture halls, but an abundance of social spaces with open areas as well as nooks and crannies. Paul Stevens of ZAS Architects argues that building’s irregular geometries and hot colours encourage both creative thinking and hanging around. But most important “is that you have highly flexible work space with good light and generous ceilings,” he argues. “It’s good-quality space, the kind of space that keeps students there.”
But the Bergeron Centre, located on a campus where land is less constrained, is only a four-storey building. The University of Toronto project is in the middle of the city, on expensive real estate. This, according to Manfredi, makes it representative of the current generation of innovation space. That genre “is now in its third or fourth iteration,” he says, “and it’s often in an urban context, because increasingly cities are seen as incubators for invention.” Indeed, the publicly owned MARS Centre, an incubator space right across the street, is a case in point; once in financial trouble, the building is now full and looking to expand.
According to Weiss, a taller tower creates a totally different set of spatial challenges. “The garage sensibility of the West Coast innovation spaces, or MIT’s Building 20, where they can hack away at a building and have these offhand relationships, is terrific,” Weiss says. “But when you’ve got a tall, vertical building, to create those offhand encounters takes a lot more effort.”
Accordingly, their Toronto project, designed in collaboration with Teeple Architects, “carves the public realm" into those “winter garden spaces,” she argues, and “creates a vertical landscape as a connecting element.” A comfortable lobby café and classrooms that will bring people in. Her partner, Manfredi, adds that the tower will “put a lot of emphasis on the spaces of circulation” – hallways, lobbies and so on, places people move through. Where such areas would be seen as wasteful, “These are buildings that are deliberately inefficient,” he says, “and in that inefficiency, people rub shoulders. The public spaces are the glue in between.”
Does that mean that the materials and design language of the architecture doesn’t matter at all? That a rough aesthetic is not in fact important to creativity? Real-life tech offices are often decorated in a somewhat messy manner. The new Apple Campus, whose architecture by Foster + Partners is rigidly minimalist, has sparked protests from some staff.
Weiss and Manfredi seem a bit ambivalent on this point. A previous project of theirs, the Tata Innovation Centre at the Cornell Tech campus in New York, has an idiosyncratic shape but a generally sober material palette of glass curtain-wall, polished concrete and drywall. But in Toronto, they are looking forward to using exposed concrete inside the PIE building, using the material’s “mineral quality” and a faceted pattern to provide some texture.
Yet their drawings certainly make the new spaces look rather crisp, like a very bright, carefully renovated factory. That is exactly the sort of place where they, the architects, work: A downtown Manhattan loft with a concrete structure and mushroom columns. “There’s a reason we’re sitting in a building that’s over 100 years old,” Weiss says. “It is generous, it’s bright, it’s simple and it’s not overdesigned.”
If that’s the formula, then Innovation Architecture does not have to break much ground – but simply provide generous and generic space with some extra lobbies and wide halls. And the ability to be rearranged. “What innovation looks like will be very different 20 years from now,” Manfredi points out. “And we think a really good building is a really good building, and that endures.”