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A rendering of George Brown College’s new School of Design at Daniels' ‘City of the Arts’ complex on Toronto's eastern waterfront.

George Brown College

Perhaps, in the fifties and sixties, this was Marlon Brando’s waterfront.

However, in the latter part of the 20th century and into this one, the quiet quays east of Yonge Street belonged, mostly, to Redpath Sugar and a handful of smaller operators. In 1998, Loblaws opened one of its new-concept grocery stores, which stood as a symbol of possibility for more than a decade. Then, in 2010, media giant Corus dropped anchor and, soon after, George Brown College with its health sciences building.

No mob bosses, no grit, no one-way tickets to Palookaville.

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Today, with more campus buildings in progress or planned, this might very well be George Brown’s waterfront by the 2020s.

The School of Design will share a building with architecture firms, animation studios and other organizations.

George Brown College

While most of the attention the college has been getting lately concerns “The Arbour,” the 12-storey, mass-timber winner of a design competition for a building to house its School of Computer Technology, (design by Moriyama & Teshima Architects and Acton Ostry Architects), there is something bubbling up at the corner of Lower Jarvis Street and Queens Quay East that is far closer to completion. However, since George Brown’s new School of Design sits within Daniels Corporation’s currently rising “City of the Arts” complex – which combines residences with arts-based businesses and non-profits – you’d be forgiven for failing to notice.

“George Brown, when it was founded, was based on [Marshall] McLuhan’s idea of the city as the classroom, so it was never isolated like York University,” says the school’s dean, Luigi Ferrara, who currently heads things up at 230 Richmond St. E. “The idea is to be integrated.” Mr. Ferrara, in a blue hardhat and well-worn safety boots, stands at tall, west-facing, third-floor windows: “This will be Sugar Beach North,” he says, pointing to the imaginary pink umbrellas that will mimic the popular shade-makers across the street. “It’s great for us because, being the city college, we never had outdoor space.”

The 103,000-square-foot space will be incorporated into the grander ‘City of the Arts’ development, which combines residences with arts-based businesses and non-profits.

Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

As Mr. Ferrara pinballs around the cavernous, raw concrete space – he knows what every square inch of the school’s 103,000 square feet is going to contain – he’s quick to point out other gathering spaces, such as the Yard, which will sit between the office buildings and residential towers to provide a sort of “living room” to the complex by featuring cafes, restaurants and an art gallery.

And then there’s the Orchid, an organically shaped chunk carved right out of the building’s south-west corner. Oriented toward the hulking mass of the Redpath refinery, it’s a tiny amphitheatre with stepped seating and a dreamy view of sailboats gliding across Lake Ontario. “Let’s say you’re faculty, you want to take your students outside and talk,” Mr. Ferrara says, “or you’re having a charrette and people need to break out, come, relax, sit.”

The view from The Orchid, an amphitheatre looking out toward the Redpath refinery and Lake Ontario.

Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Of course there will be plenty of space for serious design work. And students will either be inside “the Bean” or outside of it; really dubbed the Innovation Exchange, this large, bean-shaped enclosure will occupy the middle of both the second and third floors (there are even floor cut-outs to show the bean stretching between levels) and contain everything from an auditorium, the Future Ways of Living Lab, a library, virtual and augmented reality labs, and a Testing and Usability Lab. Outside of the Bean, there will be classrooms, drawing studios, a maker space, and, of course, offices for faculty. Interestingly, industry partners will be on site to actively participate with students. (Hopefully Microsoft Canada president Kevin Peesker, who warned in the Report on Business of a coming “technology tsunami” and that Canada must invest in training or “be left behind,” will be one of them).

Since other floors of the building will house architecture firms (Core Architects has announced their relocation here), animation studios such as House of Cool, The Remix Project, which helps marginalized youth enter creative industries, and the Manifesto Festival of Community and Culture, the school hopes to “capitalize on these adjacencies.” Mr. Ferrara laughs when he thinks back to his days as an architecture student at the University of Toronto, when he fantasized about designing an architecture school building that would share space with the very firms that would hire its graduates: “Weirdly, this is what we’re going to have … it’s good positioning for the students.”

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The dean of George Brown College envisions the outdoor space as ‘Sugar Beach North.’

George Brown College

These well-positioned students, by the way, often come from the families of new Canadians or underprivileged neighbourhoods, since George Brown specializes in outreach, bridging programs and scholarships. Mr. Ferrara’s eyes light up as he tells the story of a young woman who was forced to leave high school at 15 to help support her family, who eventually started her own graphic design business. She enrolled in a George Brown program designed to help young entrepreneurs, which would also award $10,000 to whomever could produce the best business model. She won and, rather than putting the winnings into her business, she enrolled at the college full time, since she’d never had tuition money before.

“I wish this was just one student; it’s most of our students that have financial aid issues,” he says.

With its extra-high ceilings – created especially for the college “because we’re used to the loft feeling and we didn’t want to lose that,” Mr. Ferrara explains – classrooms of glass to allow light to spill into hallways and a floor plan by IBI Group is flexible enough to meet the esoteric needs of creative students and instructors, the new waterfront school seems poised to hit the (future) ground running … or perhaps hit the water sailing?

“Design is all about the future, it’s about tomorrow and that’s what we’re doing,” Mr. Ferrara says.

George Brown College has just begun a fundraising campaign for the new School of Design. Most of the spaces mentioned here are available for corporate sponsorship/branding at different levels of financial commitment.

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