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Art & Architecture Centennial College’s Ashtonbee library constructed as a ‘gateway’ to the future

Past the Mitsubishi dealership and Mark's Work Wearhouse, past the liquor store and The Brick, you come to the bridge. It is a 90-metre span of glass and steel that lifts off the ground in front of your car window, revealing a passageway to somewhere else: a campus. Printed on the fritted-glass façade in five-foot-high letters are the words CENTENNIAL COLLEGE.

MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects

This unusual building, which opened last fall, is the new library and student centre for the community college’s Ashtonbee Campus in the Toronto district of Scarborough. The 87,000-square-foot-structure provides well-tailored space for those purposes, but also sends a message. “In a literal sense, it’s a gateway,” explains architect Ted Watson. A partner at MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects, Watson led the design together with project architect Chris Burbidge.

With this project, MJMA faced two challenges of building in car-oriented suburbs. How do you create a landmark in a landscape modulated for the car? And how do you alter that landscape to make a place that is hospitable to people on foot? MJMA’s scheme is both brawny and finely detailed, complex and rich with symbolism.

MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects

First the architects have acknowledged that “automotive culture,” as Watson puts it, “is crucial to this campus.” Ashtonbee’s largest program is an automotive service technician apprenticeship. Its oldest building is a former Volkswagen factory; today, students go there and learn to treat minivans in the Chrysler Lab or fix ATVs in the Kawasaki Lab.

The new library building turns car traffic into a spectacle. As the building stretches across the campus driveway, it opens up in a hole in its middle. Through this aperture, you can look down on vehicles as they move beneath the building. You see traffic, that most banal suburban phenomenon, from a new perspective. In this way the building joins a long conversation between modernist architecture and the car that began with Le Corbusier in the 1920s.

MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects

But you only reach that position after you’ve walked upstairs. And the centre, which is a focal point for students, creates a complex architectural promenade. Students enter underneath, from a sheltered courtyard next to the driveway, and they reach a welcome counter and student-services office; from here they can hang out on a set of Creamsicle-orange bleachers, or climb between the seats on a grand stair that leads upward and to the east.

The bulk of the space is up there on the second floor. The hole in the building divides the long, narrow floor into even skinnier halves: The north half is filled largely by the library. The southern half is wide open, a long room that is both a corridor and an informal extension of the library. Accessorized with lounge chairs and a few computer workstations, it’s the sort of informal study space that is increasingly in demand by students. Here, it’s suspended in the air, with commanding views through translucent walls lined with sturdy steel structural braces. The glass of the walls is printed with ceramic dots in a pixelated pattern; these reduce the glare and heat of the sun, and spell out the name of the school.

MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects

On its interior, the centre is a neutral container. Its design language is cool and spare: The floors are polished concrete and skinny lights hang from the ceiling in a steady rhythm. (The details are remarkably well executed, thanks to a close collaboration between builders Ellis-Don and the architects and engineers.)

According to Watson, the architects suggested a hot fuchsia colour for the library’s floor, but that move was vetoed in lieu of something more neutral. The most unusual element is a dash of ceramic tile, a material that MJMA have used with great skill in the recreation centres, which are their specialty. It’s the presence of people, together with a few orange accents, that give the space its character.

MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects

All of this is carefully considered to alter the culture of the campus itself. There is “an upstairs-downstairs culture” in which the School of Community and Health Studies operates in the upper levels of the existing buildings, while the macho world of the automotive program rules the ground floor. “We wanted to design a mixing valve for everyone to come together,” Watson says. “We wanted to make the building tough, and give it an industrial quality, but also make it welcoming and warm.” That is a difficult hue to achieve. MJMA has done it.

“The centre helps to encourage interaction between the different program areas within the college,” says Centennial associate vice-president Shannon Brooks, “so they aren’t living in their silos as much.”

But more important is the building’s savvy attitude to the city around it. (It recently won one of the city of Toronto’s Urban Design Awards, for which I served on the jury.)

MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects

The best views from the building overlook the loading docks of those retail complexes. This might seem an odd design choice; why not, instead, turn the campus inward? College and university buildings often adopt an aloof posture. But the campus and the architects are playing a longer game. Building on an earlier master plan by KPMB Architects, they imagine the campus expanding to the north and west, facing a green hydroelectric corridor; in this vision, the library building would form the southern wall of a new, enclosed quadrangle, a bit of Oxford in Scarborough. “This building was born not out of a desire to make object,” Watson says, “but as an armature for the campus of the future.”

And the context is going to change. From the 1940s to the 1980s this area, known as the Golden Mile, was an engine of manufacturing and light industry; big-box retail became the dominant force only in the 1990s. Now, Ontario public transportation agency Metrolinx is building the multibillion-dollar Eglinton Crosstown LRT line along Eglinton Avenue; there will be a stop within a few minutes’ walk of the campus and the city has flagged this district for new transit-oriented development. Factories and stores come and go. But bridges tend to last, and this one will reach into the future.

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