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University of Toronto Mississauga’s new Innovation Centre cost $30-million to construct, and took only 21 months to go from conception to completion.

Big dreams, and then smaller ones. This has been the rhythm by which Canadian universities have been built over the past four decades, and you can read this history clearly on the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus. It was first conceived in the sixties as a concrete megastructure, but it emerged as a collage of architectural visions, Brutalist concrete colliding with sleek stainless steel and townhouses that look trucked in from a nearby subdivision.

The latest addition, the Innovation Centre, announces itself with a flash: Its façade is wrapped in a screen of vertical aluminum fins painted a brilliant white. Move to one side, and the surface of the building begins to dissolve before your eyes. The smooth, powder-coated surfaces of the fins blend together into a rippling, shimmering cloud.

The designers, Moriyama & Teshima Architects, aimed for a balance between assertiveness and politesse, says Carol Phillips, an architect who led the design for MTA along with Daniel Teramura. "The campus has some really remarkable buildings with distinct claddings, and we really wanted to bring something that was neutral," she explains. "We're at a point where the campus needs some stitching together. It's distinct, but it is also neutral."

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The building reflects a decade-long wave of renewed ambition to create high-quality campus architecture, here and elsewhere in Canada. But what is a true sign of the times is the legal and financial framework that produced it, known as integrated design-build. This is a cousin to the public-private partnership model now fashionable in Canada's public sector, in which a consortium of private companies guarantees a price and a date and assumes the risks of construction, and the government pays up when it's done. In this case, the university was involved all the way along, but Moriyama & Teshima worked as a team with builders PCL Constructors – and the architects answered to them, not to the ultimate users of the building. This matters more than you might think.

Under its remarkable surface, the 65,300-square-foot structure – a renovation and addition of a 1992 academic building – is fairly modest in its aspirations. It houses offices for the faculties of economics and management, the campus's registrar, classrooms and a new student commons. The latter is the heart of the program. The grand circular room sits at the middle of this centre, defining a new and badly needed student gathering place. The walls here are dressed in Italian travertine marble and studded with another set of tall vertical members – these ones wrapped in white oak, rather than painted white.

The two sets of fins, inside and outside, have precisely the same dimensions; their aluminum backbones were fabricated at the same time, and then wrapped in different materials. As Phillips told me, that decision came as part of one of many conversations between the design-build team and the university's representatives. Originally, the architects had imagined the wood fins on the great hall with slightly different proportions; making them echo the façade saved money and construction time, with a negligible impact on the design. "We wouldn't have arrived at that ourselves," says Phillips, who describes the collaboration with PCL as smooth and productive. "The process can make architects smarter." This sort of efficiency is the promise of design-build.

In some senses, the building is a victory. It was delivered with a high level of workmanship in just 21 months from conception to opening – a remarkably short timeline, and one the university was required by the province to hit in order to cope with a student population that has almost tripled in just a decade.

Still, it is no bargain. The Innovation Centre's $30-million budget makes it competitive, accounting for size and inflation, with more ambitious buildings on the same campus, such as the Governor-General's Award-winning Donnelly Health Sciences Complex by Kongats Architects.

And as you move away from the Innovation Centre's showpiece elements, the building descends from the sublime into the just adequate. A substantial number of classrooms are underground, lacking any natural light; once you step away from the most important passageways, the floors change from ceramic to linoleum. Outside, the architects went beyond their brief to rethink the landscape around the building; and yet a new path they added along one side is bare concrete, unlandscaped and unadorned. A $30-million building, and no money for some shrubs?

No single person bears responsibility for those decisions. The architects and PCL competed for the job as a team; when they won it, the university presented them with a lengthy "manual" that specified the academic needs and on which floor each element should be placed. University staff, under chief administrative officer Paul Donoghue, wrote this manual and managed the process actively. "We are at the table," Donoghue says. "We are there to ask, how do I bring it to reality in a cost-effective way? Those discussions go back and forth between the architect, the contractor and us."

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However, the architects couldn't play their profession's traditional role of consulting with their clients to see what they need – and questioning whether they really need it, or how that result might be delivered in unorthodox ways. Sometimes it takes a skilled outsider to question an organization's internal culture and assumptions.

In this case, for instance, Donoghue explains that both classroom and office space were urgently needed when the building was conceived in 2012. Yet most of the faculty offices I visited – which are well-lit and attractively designed – showed few signs of occupancy. Many professors on the campus hold other appointments. Did each of the faculty in this facility really need a private office? I don't know, but it would have been worth asking. Architecture is not just about organizing form and space; it's also about listening and about asking tough questions.

And there is a bigger question to ask. There was a time, in the 1960s, when Canada treated universities and college campuses as nation-building projects: Simon Fraser, the University of Lethbridge, Scarborough College. To do that again will require vision, money and the political will to pay for innovation. Donoghue argues that his university is "building for the long term," and he is no doubt sincere. But in this case he got a good building: I wonder whether the builders and architects could have produced a great one.

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