At some point in life, just about everyone spends some time in a dwelling designed for temporary use. It could be a bunkhouse at camp, or a university dormitory, or a resort or business hotel. It might be a hospital room.
For those afflicted by mental illness or substance abuse, it could be one of the three new transitional-care buildings soon to go on line at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Like dorms, hotels and every other kind of temporary lodging done with a view to art as well as utility, these low-rise structures provided strong challenges to the architects who crafted them - challenges the designers have met with imagination and deep sensitivity for future residents.
Parts of the first phase in the $382-million overhaul of CAMH's historic campus on Queen Street West, these handsome buildings have been designed by a consortium of three well-known Toronto firms: Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, Montgomery Sisam, and Kearns Mancini. These architects were given an interesting mandate: to create shelter for patients who are past the acute stages of their illnesses, but not yet ready to go out on their own. The results are three-storey brick and steel blocks that more closely resemble small, modern, well-made apartment buildings than the dull, glowering psychiatric hospitals of yesteryear.
At the heart of the scheme is a simply appointed room for one patient, lockable and furnished with an ensuite bathroom and a large operable window. Six of these well-proportioned rooms are connected by a short corridor to a common dining and living area. The barricaded nurse's station typical of psychiatric institutions has been abolished; staff will do their duty in the lounge. (I wonder how nurses will like this arrangement. Where will they escape if their patients' idea of a good time is watching endless reruns of wrestling matches on TV?)
Each six-room unit on the upper storeys is linked, in turn, to the building's lobby by a elevator - a touch that affords privacy to patients, and that neatly eliminates long, soulless hospital walkways.
But these private elevators, and the overall low-rise residential sense of the project, are not the only moves the architects have made to ensure their buildings don't look like old-school health-care facilities. The cladding is in beautiful wine-red brick and (as a cost-cutting measure that turned out well) light stucco. These colours harmonize nicely with the old brick houses in the neighbourhood.
Each structure has been given a rear courtyard framed by the stucco and brick inner surfaces and by what's left of the Victorian perimeter wall - a once-hated, now-loved construction by the distinguished Toronto firm Cumberland & Ridout, and city architect Kivas Tully.
The best thing about these buildings, however, is the attention paid to light. There are large windows everywhere - windows in rooms and corridors, window seats at the ends of hallways, wide views from every level. As project architect Terry Montgomery explained to me, the old logic of hospital design dictated that visitors step from the outside world directly into a cave hollowed out of a great mass of opaque masonry.
The CAMH facilities he and his group have realized, in contrast, invite patients and visitors into a lobby that immediately opens toward the courtyard beyond. There is no darkness anywhere, and a fine porosity that, I imagine, will be something patients will appreciate about their temporary digs.
Now that I have praised several things about the generally excellent first phase of the CAMH build-out, I can't leave the project without mentioning one abomination.
The whole idea behind the master plan for the site has been to create what CAMH director Paul Garfinkel has called an "urban village." That means, in part, extending the ordinary street grid into the campus, which has hitherto been one big, isolated chunk of real estate. In principle, normalizing the relationship between CAMH and the surrounding urban fabric has been accomplished in the first phase. The alignment of Fennings Street, which has long dead-ended at Queen Street, has indeed been punched south, and now lies alongside the transitional-care buildings, the out-patient facility and a small park. Public lighting, sidewalk widths and such look like what you'd find on any Toronto street.
But at the point this alignment enters the CAMH site, it is Fennings Street no more. It becomes, of all things, White Squirrel Way. So much for normality! While I don't have a problem with hospital's determination to pay homage to the albino rodents visitors occasionally see scampering across the CAMH property - why not a statue? - I object to breaking the very continuity with the surrounding cityscape that the hospital says it wants to promote.
In any case, White Squirrel Way is the kind of silly moniker developers give to suburban cul-de-sacs. Fennings Street, on the other hand, commemorates the Victorian public official Fennings Taylor. Better the name of an honourable Toronto bureaucrat on the revamped CAMH site than that of an eccentric rat!