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Nortel and HOK Architects seems like a natural match. The first is without doubt Canada's largest telecommunications firm, a global giant with revenues equal to all other Canadian hi-tech companies combined; the second, with 1,800 employees in 26 countries, easily ranks as the largest private-sector architectural firm in the world.

As 1999 ended, HOK/Urbana, as the Canadian office is known, was in the process of finishing up its much-talked-about 55,800-square-metre addition to Nortel's sprawling Carling Campus located in the park-like greenbelt that surrounds Ottawa.

There is no denying that this addition to the campus is an impressive example of modern corporate architecture, boasting crisp geometrics, bright colours and people-friendly atriums and piazzas. Too bad it's located where it is.

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The archetype of this particular brand of campus remains the mega shopping mall and its subservience to the car. Given the lack of an urban focus that plagues Nepean, the "edge city" cum Ottawa bedroom community in which the labs reside, it is sad that the project does not have a connection to a true city.

Context aside, the three new, low-rise labs, each 18,000 square feet, are clean, crisp buildings of brick, metal and glass, thoroughly modern in language, but with strong flashes of colour and whimsical structural outbursts. Contained within, are carefully planned interiors designed to be rapidly adaptable in physical and technological layout and conducive to spontaneous teamwork while providing a humane, albeit sanitized, "living city" for employees.

This is a welcome change from the architecture of Ottawa's self-described Silicon Valley North, which more generally resembles the low-end office satirized in the Scott Adams' cartoon strip Dilbert. Aaron Betsky has written in Architecture that "computers are fundamentally changing the way architects design and construct buildings." The converse -- that architecture is creatively reinventing the spaces in which we utilize this information technology -- seems considerably less obvious.

HOK's approach to the labs is a result of both design evolution and the addition of Urbana to its corporate network. The St. Louis-based firm has worked with Nortel for 16 years. In 1992, the company designed lab five at the Carling Campus, a mammoth, star-shaped structure dominated by a seven-storey central glass dome that rises above the surrounding trees, a light beacon that gives the company a visible presence in the surrounding landscape. Despite a dramatic interior staircase winding around the interior of the dome, however, its exterior architecture is boxy and awkward like so many contemporary office buildings.

Nortel began to embrace the notion of a more "humane" architecture in 1992 when it decided to turn its back on the expensive business towers of Toronto as a location for its world heaquarters and consolidate operations into the 90,000-million-square-metre shell of one of its plants built in Brampton, Ont., in 1963. Nortel and HOK began to map out a new "urban strategy" that would see the six football-field sized space converted into a colourful, animated, and very functional and adaptable grid of streets and piazzas. Many of the retail and commercial services -- restaurants, banks, convenience stores, dry cleaning depots -- found in a village line these urban forms while scaled down work areas utilize a "kit-of-parts" developed with Nortel's long-term furniture partner, Herman Miller, to permit work groups to configure their own preferred working arrangements. The result was a company town that not only was a hit with notoriously fickle information technology employees, but garnered wide attention in the design and development industry press as well as the popular media. In 1997, the Brampton office won the joint Architectural Record/Business Week office of the year award.

With the Brampton experience under its belt, HOK and Urbana, a small Toronto architecture firm that HOK used for Brampton's final stages, were given the nod by Nortel to do the Ottawa expansion. As the new structures would be on forested greenbelt land leased from the National Capital Commission, the architects had to avoid both spreading out the building's footprint and building above the tree line. The result is two, long parallel wings of three storeys each running south from lab five and separated by a large pond and landscaped court.

The design for each wing involves two separate but connected buildings rendered in a precise geometric modernism (on the west side, however, the second, southern most building will be built later). On the outside façades, crisp, beige brick walls of punched windows, their horizontality emphasized by strong bands of metal reveals, define each building's form. The façades facing the pond/skating rink are somewhat monumental. Long, glazed walls, broken once again by coloured but less dramatic entrance recesses, stretch into the carefully preserved woods to the south. Between the separate buildings, however, the design team counterpoints the monotony of this triple glazed wall with two almost irrational outbursts of structure and colour. These irregularly shaped pavilions, rendered in bright yellow (east) and deep purple (west) stucco and detailed with raw, unpainted steel canopies, signal the complex's two major atriums or town squares.

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As accomplished as the outside may be, it is the interior which sets the labs apart from most hi-tech workplaces. During a tour of the complex, Gordon Stratford, HOK/Urbana's design partner talks about "connective tissue," a term that takes on several meanings at the Carling Labs. Most directly, it refers to the two interior streets that run down the glazed, pond side of the two wings.

They wander through the three storey, moon-shaped piazzas at the centre of each lab building as well as the two multifunctional town squares contained in the structurally animated and light-filled stucco atriums. These dual main streets sustain a continual connection with the exterior landscape around the pond. This landscape is broken into three zones, "garden" (summer wild flowers), "field" (crab apple) and "forest" (poplar, maple and oak) and provides cues for detailing each lab.

But connection also implies ideas about the spatial free flow of work at Nortel. Work spaces, never far from a window on the outer perimeter sit under four-metre high ceilings with drop down wiring. Offices are primarily open -- including management -- and highly flexible, a combination of fixed screens and flexi-screens adjustable for privacy.

Finally, along the "main street," there is, for example, a "wellness" and fitness centre, a travel agency, a bank, convenience shops and even a place to pick up prepared food to take home.

Rhys Phillips writes occasionally on architecture and architectural issues from Ottawa. His last article in The Globe and Mail was on the new U.S. Embassy in Ottawa.

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