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Toronto’s OCAD University may boast another city landmark

OCAD’S ‘Creative City Campus’ project, led by Morphosis architect Thom Mayne, will include an addition to OCADU’s main building of about 55,000 square feet.

Pritzker Prize-winner Thom Mayne will be involved in the expansion, which could redefine the university’s relationship with Toronto

A decade ago, OCAD University changed Toronto’s streetscape with a box on stilts.

Now, the school may be about to do it again. OCAD announced Tuesday that its new “Creative City Campus,” a series of renovations and additions to its campus on McCaul Street, will be led by the Southern California architects Morphosis.

The project includes an addition to OCADU’s main building of about 55,000 square feet and a renovation of about 95,000 square feet. And with the engagement of Morphosis, led by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne, this building could redefine the university’s relationship with the city, and perhaps provide the city with a new architectural landmark.

The process hasn’t begun, but Monday, Mayne was clearly excited about the task at hand. “It’s a very interesting challenge,” he said. “We’re very interested in the education of art, the question of whether we can design an architecture that responds to that process.”

The effort includes a renovation and expansion of the university’s library, new studio and classroom spaces, a student commons and the construction of an Indigenous Visual Culture and Student Centre.

It is the biggest set of changes to the downtown campus since the school’s Sharp Centre for Design – the dramatic box-on-stilts designed by British architect Will Alsop – transformed the campus in 2004, becoming one of the most visible and highly publicized buildings in the city. And OCAD sits next to the Art Gallery of Ontario, whose redesign by Frank Gehry in 2008 made it another crucial piece of 21st-century architecture in the city.

The new OCAD project will neighbour famous, bold architecture pieces such as the Sharp Centre.

The university’s president, Sara Diamond, calls the project “a critical step forward in OCADU’s development.” It is “an opportunity to create a very functional space for OCADU and a meeting place for the many community members that we engage with.”

This will be up to Morphosis along with Teeple Architects, the decorated Toronto firm that collaborated with Morphosis on the Graduate House residence at the University of Toronto, and Two Row Architect of the Six Nations Reserve, near Brantford, Ont. Two Row’s Brian Porter will contribute particularly to the Indigenous Visual Culture Centre, and also ensure “that indigeneity is embedded successfully throughout the complex,” OCADU said in a statement.

What will that look like? Porter cited values of sustainability and a “place of welcome, that engages the individual but considers the collective.” Those values, Diamond says, are “critical to our mission.”

Do people like or dislike our building? I don’t really care. I care about whether it makes people think differently about what architecture can be.

Thom Mayne

This mandate combines with a knotty series of challenges. The main OCADU building, completed in 1961, needs “a significant revamp,” Diamond says; the result will expand it, though it’s not clear whether the building will push out toward the street or up toward the Sharp Centre, which is suspended above it.

The presence of the Sharp Centre and the Art Gallery of Ontario – two famous and bold pieces of architecture – add a lot of complexity. “Most people think architects bring their ideas to the project, and somehow it’s about them personally,” Mayne says. That’s rarely true, least of all here. “This is a project that has to come out of complexity and intricacy between these buildings,” he says. “It will emerge from the questions we ask and the conversations we have.”

And can it compete with its neighbours? “What can you say?” Teeple principal Stephen Teeple asks rhetorically. “It will stand up in its own right, but only if it really speaks to what the place and the institution is about.”

Morphosis collaborated with decorated Toronto firm Teeple Architects on the Graduate House residence at the University of Toronto.

Mayne adds: “Between two buildings that have strong characteristics, there wants to be a third thing. Does it call for a third icon? Or does it become much more neutral?” So far, he doesn’t have an answer.

As that question suggests, there is both an openness and conceptual challenge in designing an art school – or a design school; OCAD is both. Some of the most interesting buildings of the past century have been art schools, notably Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art. (In Toronto, Macy DuBois’s brutalist art centre for Central Technical School gained global attention in 1962.)

Mayne himself has long taught architecture, and in the early 1970s co-founded the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), a multidisciplinary design institution with a strong focus on digital technology, that he compares to OCADU.

Morphosis, in fact, largely produced “paper architecture” until the early 1990s, when it burst out with a series of tough, slashing buildings that achieved sculptural effects with a minimum of materials, primarily concrete and steel. The University of Toronto building, designed with Teeple and completed in 2000, is a significant work.

Thom Mayne designed the modern glass and steel Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art academic building.

More recently, Mayne has become something of an elder statesman; Morphosis has designed several buildings for the U.S. government, including a courthouse in Oregon and a federal building in San Francisco, as well as the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas.

A series of educational buildings, including one for Cooper Union in New York that turns on an open “social stair,” have explored architecture as a means of spurring conversation and creativity. They are rarely conventionally pretty or polite – the Toronto building, which suspends a corridor/sign above the middle of Harbord Street, drew many angry responses.

Recent buildings, including one at Cornell and another in Michigan, are formally quieter. But being loud and sometimes difficult, as Mayne argues, is what makes for innovation.

“We’re interested in dialogue and transparency and conversation, buildings which promote conversation and in the end promote inquisitiveness,” Mayne said.

“Do people like or dislike our building? I don’t really care. I care about whether it makes people think differently about what architecture can be. I’m interested in architecture that operates on your brain, and raises the question about what it means to make buildings today.”

That question, as it gets answered at OCAD University, should set an example for the nascent designers and artists who will be formed there.

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