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Breathing the rarefied air at Centennial College’s new library Add to ...

At the corner of Highway 401 and Markham Road, where Toronto is at its most banal and concrete heavy, Centennial College has opened a library and learning centre robustly framed by walls of dark iron-spot brick and lustrous, moody copper. Surprisingly – wonderfully – architecture is making a difference here.

What makes the commute through grinding traffic to the Progress Campus extra worthwhile for the college’s 16,000 students (22,000 are enrolled in continuing studies) is the architectural re-branding of Centennial. The dour series of pre-cast concrete buildings put up in the 1970s are still standing, but now they’re offset by light-filled buildings with lounges equipped with computer bars and hipster seating in shades of cool, cucumber green. At the heart of the new $34-million library by Diamond + Schmitt Architects is a living wall of mesmerizing greenery that’s four storeys high. Even with hundreds of students milling about the library commons, toiling at computers or talking at group study tables, the air feels pristine here; more mountain-like than urban fringe.

We’ve grown fond of sparkling water. But sparkling air – that’s what students at Centennial are breathing in their library.

Benjaminas, ficas, ivy and rubber plants push their lush and wet leaves out of the vertical wall, while a veil of water runs up and down the lush display of hydroponics. It’s a backdrop rich enough to be part of a theatre. Stairs crafted of Owen Sound limestone rise from the commons area to the upper library. Balconies clad in beech wood and glass punch forward to hover above the atrium. Slender white pendant lights hang in front of the green wall, making an intimate, human scale. One student on the fourth floor reaches over a balustrade to touch a leaf, testing whether it’s real.

“The library makes a place and gives the campus a front entrance,” says lead design architect Donald Schmitt, who consulted with students during workshops along with co-project architects Branka Gazibara and Sydney Browne. “The use of materials takes the students seriously. We’re making something that respects them. And there was a conviction to move the college beyond a shopping mall and a high school to a permanent place of learning.”

The bio-filtering living wall is a Canadian innovation first imagined at the University of Guelph to enhance long-term habitation of space stations.

That was a decade ago, when Canadian and European space agencies were funding the bio-filter research. Then, in 2001, Diamond + Schmitt heard about the system and met with Alan Darlington, a biologist and Guelph inventor of the Nedlaw living wall, to facilitate its first commercial application – on earth – for a satellite facility of the University of Guelph at Humber College. Some 200 of the Nedlaw vertical walls, in which bio-filters are seamlessly integrated with green plants, have been installed in places such as the University of Toronto’s Multi-faith Centre, within the new Corus headquarters on the waterfront and, increasingly, at American universities.

“It’s an entirely Canadian solution to dealing with poor indoor air quality,” says Mr. Darlington.

With a single pass through the system, approximately 80 per cent of the contaminants in the air, caused by construction materials, printers and computers and including benzene and formaldehyde, are removed. That’s because air can be efficiently cleaned and polished when microbes find easy access to plant roots in the vertical wall. Because much less air from the outside needs to be imported then filtered through a mechanical system, energy consumption is reduced and the air is naturally humidified.

Any way you look at a map, it’s a long trek by bus or car across the top of Toronto to Centennial. The new gateway building is fronted by three mega-frames in wood and glass wrapped in a skirt of black granite with a rounded 200-seat auditorium clad in copper to the side. On its north flank, there’s a rhythm of projecting window bays that run four storeys high. Elegantly clad in copper, the bays harvest natural light and send it deep into the library’s floorplate, where offices, library stacks and 22 classrooms are organized around the atrium. An art gallery and lounge occupy the fireside room on the other side of the living wall.

The library, its greenery and collective gathering spaces, is a welcome draw to those who study at Centennial, operating as it does as their own grand central station. Although the courses are taught in English, foreign languages float through the air in the library commons. Fifty-nine per cent of the students at the college were born outside of Canada.

Multiplicity of language, faith and cultural background make Centennial a symbol of the next Toronto. That and the brain-stimulating air that’s circulating inside.

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