It's a little less than 1500 square feet, but it's as big as Scarborough's Dorset Park neighbourhood.
Completed in late 2011 and awaiting its grand opening, "The Commons" expansion of the McGregor Park Community Centre on Lawrence Avenue East isn't just a stylish architectural confection by Bortolotto Architects – although it most certainly is that – it's become a primer for the City of Toronto on how to involve youth in "priority neighbourhoods" in the construction process.
Who better to sit at the planning table than the people who will actually use a building?
While small, The Commons is a delight. A long corridor hugs a former exterior wall, which opens into a bright, slightly trapezoidal space with a chic, industrial look: the floor is polished concrete, walls are constructed of short concrete block painted a warm grey (mortar has been raked for a more dramatic look), and roof columns and cross-bracing over the high windows are exposed. To offset the hard angles, the large south wall is smooth drywall, painted powder blue, that tilts outward and then curves over the ceiling to provide a sense of shelter. The composition is capped by a floating, creamy-white ceiling.
"Architecturally, what was challenging was how to create something interesting in a small area using just bare, essential materials," says lead designer Tania Bortolotto. What's more interesting is the addition had to tuck itself into a complex of buildings of various vintages, including ZAS Architects' striking butterfly-roofed library, which opened in 2004. "If you stand outside, you'll see that there are about three different languages of architecture, so we had to design a fourth element that had to fit in with all of them," she continues, "so we tried to make it as minimalist as possible, and let the other pieces just do their own thing."
Despite being minimalist, the glass-and-black-brick addition has become a new neighbourhood beacon due to its proximity to the street edge; this helps "with the public realm condition, because it sits within a vast parking lot," says Ms. Bortolotto.
The bigger part of this story, however, is how the public – mainly neighbourhood kids of high school age – shaped the building almost as much as the architects did.
It started in 2008, when the Dorset Park Youth Council coalesced around the need for a better place to hang out and play sports. Using the McGregor complex for meetings, the group quickly developed a relationship with the Parks, Forestry & Recreation staff onsite, who introduced the group to the city's Director of Community Resources, Denise Andrea Campbell. Soon, the DPYC was preparing funding applications to send to the Youth Challenge Fund, the United Way, the city and the Recreational Infrastructure Canada Program (RInC).
"It's an interesting partnership," says Ms. Campbell. Usually, she explains, when a new community building gets the green light, there is an initial community consultation, but, after that, city staff work through the "tough choices" with the architect and contractor behind closed doors. It's only at the launch of the new building some years later that the community sees the results.
Not this time: "We wanted to ensure engagement happened all the way through." That meant the DPYC, a group of about 30 young people, attended all meetings with city staff, funding organizations, Councillor Michael Thompson, architects and anyone else involved in the project. "Everybody was learning, and the key decisions about the project were being done at that table."
And a lot of time was spent around that table – most of it mundane, some of it sublime – over the next two years, with at least one meeting per month. What helped is that the project was broken into two phases. The first, completed in August, 2009, was the Diverse Sports Pad, which also includes a stage for artistic activity. "They were able to see that come to fruition," explains Ms. Campbell, "and it was a good point to say 'Even though this may be hard and frustrating at times, it's worth it because it yields something.'"
The Commons addition was considered next.
"They talked about wanting, for example, bulletproof glass," says Ms. Campbell of the youth group, remembering her surprise at the time. In addition, a reflective film prohibiting views inside to passersby was discussed. This is less surprising, she adds, when you consider that a rash of violent incidents had plagued Dorset Park and Winston Churchill Collegiate at the time. Still, it's interesting to note that the usual notions of building safety – fire exits, sprinklers and code issues – aren't shared by all age groups.
Rather than go to those dramatic lengths, architects Tania Bortolotto and Alex Horber raised the concrete block wall so users of the space would feel protected. Large, non-bulletproof windows were placed well above street level, turning the building into a sort of "lantern.
"We're really happy with how it turned out," says Ms. Bortolotto.
The city is happy also. Not only does youth engagement create a sense of "ownership and pride" with city architecture, the model has worked so well it's become a template used for other City of Toronto capital projects in priority neighbourhoods.
"This is theirs," finishes Ms. Campbell.