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the architourist

Ramp project at Toronto's Centre for Social Innovation at 192 Spadina Ave.Arnaud Marthouret/Arnaud Marthouret/Revelateur

When a project blends in so well, there is a danger. In 50 or 75 years, who will be around to tell of the thought that went into it? Who will remember the anecdotal stories that fill in the blanks? Who will fight to preserve it?

At Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation – part incubator, part lab, part co-working space, part tenanted office building, and all in for reshaping the world to become a better place – one such project exists. Here, at 192 Spadina Ave., how people enter and first experience the six-storey, 1920 brick-and-beam beauty has been radically changed, but a first-time visitor might not blink an eye.

“There’s something about our role as stewards of history,” says CSI chief executive officer Tonya Surman. “I think about this building, how easy it would be to sell it and have a developer rip ‘er down and put up a 12-storey condo.” But that, she continues, wouldn’t honour its rich history as part of Toronto’s once-booming garment district or “show the world that here was a different way, a slower way.”

Architectural Technologist and The Architect Builders Collaborative member Greg Papp gives the ramp a test drive.The Architect Builders Collaborative

When CSI purchased the building in 2014, accessibility requirements needed attention immediately since many tenants and visitors are wheelchair users. However, like many other schmatta warehouses, the ‘ground’ floor isn’t really a floor at all: visitors enter from the street onto a thin landing and must choose to climb a half flight up or descend a half flight into a semi-basement. So, one of the first things purchased was a costly, key-operated lift platform at the building’s side door, which is located partway down a shadowy alley.

“And it’s so ugly, it never gets used, it takes up so much space [and] it drives me nuts,” says Ms. Surman.

So, consulting with tenant Luke Anderson of StopGap Foundation – StopGap manufactures the brightly coloured ramps that turn inaccessible shops into accessible ones – a temporary ramp was built off of the main stair. Problem was, says Mr. Anderson (a wheelchair user since a cycling accident changed his life in 2002), “it was very steep and certainly was not designed to local building codes.” So, while it did allow “people to independently and spontaneously get in and out of the building” it also caused great distress for Ms. Surman.

Detail of the waterjet cut blackened steel handrail bracket.Kathleen Forsyth/Kathleen Forsyth/The Architect Builders Collaborative

“It’s the only time in my 17 years at CSI that I truly cried, because my team [said] ‘we need a wheelchair accessibility ramp’ and you are giving me the ugliest piece of crap you could possibly imagine and I said ‘I do not accept that everything accessible has to be as ugly as sin.”

Luckily, Ms. Surman’s building is full of heavenly, creative people.

Enter architects David Oleson of Oleson Worland Architects (a tenant of 192) and Daniel Hall of The Architect Builders Collaborative (a former tenant at CSI’s Regent Park space), who were handed the unique challenge of creating something large, utilitarian, to code, and, most importantly, beautiful.

“As I recall, even before the wood itself – I mean the wood just makes it all really special – was to try to make a landscape, to make an interior amphitheatre in a sense,” says Mr. Oleson. “And then when the wood chunks came along it just made it all come together.”

The wood creates multiple platforms for laptop-typers or cellphone talkers – without interfering with wheelchairs wheeling their way safely down.Arnaud Marthouret/Arnaud Marthouret/Revelateur

And what of this “really special” wood? Well, it belonged to Mr. Hall’s client, Dr. Michael Jewett, who, by day, helps save lives as part of University Health Network’s oncology team, and, by night, rescues century-old beams from demolition sites.

Consulting with the good doctor on a laneway suite for his Cabbagetown residence, Mr. Hall casually mentioned the CSI project, and that reclaimed wood was one of the materials being discussed. Intrigued, Dr. Jewett immediately extended an invitation to visit his farm near Uxbridge: not only did he have various outbuildings constructed using reclaimed wood – a drive shed using glulam beams from the old Valhalla Inn is but one example – he also had, all stacked neatly and labelled, structural timbers from 12 Toronto buildings, most a century old and most taken down during the late-1990s and early-2000s condo boom.

“I started to cart timber up to Uxbridge on the return leg of my local building supply company truck deliveries, so they were deadheading back up, and I would have them pass by a demolition site and load timber,” says Dr. Jewett, “so I am reasonably good on the provenance of this material.”

The wood platforms also create a new area where someone might address a crowd.Arnaud Marthouret/Arnaud Marthouret/Revelateur

To wit, the stuff he had in mind for the CSI team – which Mr. Hall says he “practically gave away” – had once held up a sturdy red brick building at the northeast corner of Dundas St. E. and Carlaw Ave., and another from Charlotte St. And, interestingly, in one of those buildings there was mixture of Southern yellow pine and Douglas fir, which placed its construction at the point where the railways opened up trade with Western Canada, since, before that, Ontarians would bring pine up via water from Georgia or the Carolinas.

Of course most visitors to 192 Spadina won’t know any of this. They might not even notice how all of that wood creates multiple platforms for laptop-typers or cellphone talkers – without interfering with wheelchairs wheeling their way safely down – or a new area where a someone might address a crowd (says Ms. Surman: “we have storytelling nights, we have speakers, we have all sorts of things”). They won’t think of the tears, the architects who brushed them away, Dr. Jewett’s passion project, structural engineer David Moses who did the math, or McWood Studios who constructed it all.

But if they think it’s beautiful, maybe their grandchildren will also, and they’ll preserve it when it becomes a century old.

“To me,” finishes Ms. Surman with a twinkle in her eye, “it’s art as much as it’s access.”

Arnaud Marthouret/Arnaud Marthouret/Revelateur

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