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"Didja hear about the Buddhist who went to the hockey game?" asks architect Terence Van Elslander with a twinkle in his eye. "He went to the hot dog stand and said, 'Make me one with everything.'"

Ugh.

"Sorry, it's the only Buddhist joke I know," he says, now walking past the Buddhism and Psychology Student Union office in the basement of New College's Wilson Hall at the University of Toronto.

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Deciding to keep his day job, he regains his architect's composure and asks Ron Vander Kraats, the college's director of business services: "How do the clubs like this area?"

"They love it," he answers. "We have a waiting list."

It's an easy space to love. Formerly a maze of tutorial rooms and hallways, in 2009 Van Elsander Carter Architects Inc. created a bright, open area with a cluster of mini-offices and a large, glassed-in meeting room for student clubs. The lightweight metal structural materials and brightly coloured panels act as counterpoint to the warm wood and earthy brick chosen by Macy Dubois (1927-2007) when he designed the two-building complex a half-century ago.

"This building is a little bit nicer than Wetmore [Hall], and I think it has to do with the structure," says Mr. Van Elslander, explaining that by the time Wilson Hall was completed in 1969, some of Wetmore's 1964 kinks had been smoothed out.

However, non-structural kinks had popped up all over the place in the decades since Mr. Dubois designed the Scandinavian-inspired buildings. While a third structure had been added to the college's inventory – "New College Residence," an eight-storey tower designed by Saucier + Perrotte in 2003 – administrative space was still lacking for staff and students. The new International Foundation Program (IFP), which teaches English to international students, had only added to those pressures; luckily, this same program generated the funds necessary to solve the problem.

"You know those handheld games where you move the little tile?" asks Mr. Van Elslander. "The work here has been like that: When we started off there was no space, then Ron got a little space, so we started moving things around until we ended up with enough space." Much like those little wooden puzzles, each step was done only after plotting what – and who – would move where; after the clubs had been relocated, it was time to consider the student council office.

Although the 2003 building contains mostly student residences – in fact, New College is unusual in that all three of its buildings are residential in nature – the atrium/lobby was almost always empty because the blank walls and hallways didn't encourage congregation. The architects removed walls, added large windows into new student council offices (now featuring a big trophy case, something they'd always wanted) and placed inviting furniture in the atrium, which "activates" the whole area. When council hosts events, they slide huge glass doors to connect their offices to the atrium area. "It's more than just a residence building now, which is great," beams Mr. Vander Kraats, who adds that the atrium furniture was paid for by a student fund.

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Taking residence in the old student council offices are the IFP's offices.

In a minor shuffle, computer stations on the upper level of the Donald Ivey Library were relocated to other areas, re-opening the view to what architecture lovers consider to be New College's best feature: Mr. Dubois's serpentine inner courtyard walls, which Larry Wayne Richards writes in University of Toronto: The Campus Guide (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009) "owe a debt" to Alvar Aalto's 1948 Baker House at MIT. "This whole sense of being projected out into this space … was lost to most people," says the other half of Van Elslander Carter Architects, architect David Carter. Vintage interior design lovers aren't left out, however, as the library still sports the massive, cylindrical light fixtures that were installed in 1969.

The biggest redesign, by far, was the basement of Wetmore Hall. A narrow corridor tucked too close to appreciate Mr. Dubois' sinuous wall, and a warren of low-ceilinged, dark offices and computer labs has been liberated; now, it's a zig-zagging series of seven classrooms set well back from the curved wall. With the corridor gone, students and instructors can spy swaying leaves and dappled sunlight through the high windows. "I spent most of my elementary school staring out the window," quips Mr. Van Elslander, "so I appreciate being able to do that."

Outside the classrooms, the newly opened space allows curvy couches to spread out on the polished (and original) concrete floor, and colourfully striped and semi-frosted classroom windows create a connection between public and private. It's a bright, fun space that feels a lot less like a basement and very much the 21st-century learning space it's meant to be.

Best of all, this intervention – and the others – don't distract from the 1960s design language: "I really respect that generation," finishes Mr. Van Elslander. "The buildings are so substantial, and so well thought through…so it's really a pleasure to work in them."

To that end, a long, era-appropriate portico has been designed for Willcocks St. in front of Wilson Hall so New College graduates will have a backdrop for photographs.

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It's currently awaiting university approval and, as always, a generous donor.

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