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The Aaniin Community Centre received the Buildings of Significance Award at the Markham Urban Design Excellence Awards last year.Scott Norsworthy

You’ve got to be big if you want to stand atop Toronto. And, increasingly, places such as Vaughan, Richmond Hill and Markham north of the city have been pumping the architectural iron.

Vaughan City Hall by KPMB is a masterful composition of low-rise buildings that form one bold and balanced composition; Richmond Hill’s Oak Ridges Library by Perkins & Will mixes timber and sunlight to stunning effect; and Markham’s Wong Dai Sin Temple by Shim-Sutcliffe somehow defies gravity yet looks as if it came directly out of a foundry. Heavy stuff.

All award winners, there’s another big-shouldered Markham building that just took to the podium: late last year, Aaniin Community Centre received the Buildings of Significance Award at the Markham Urban Design Excellence Awards.

It will no doubt receive more. Also by Perkins & Will, Aaniin – which translates to “hello/I see your light” in Ojibwe – is massive, at 11,334 square metres, but somehow finds a way to stay intimate and sheltering.

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Aaniin translates to 'hello/I see your light' in Ojibwe.Tom Arban

“What we’re striving to do is to create nooks and eddies off of the main stream where people can feel comfortable to watch their children in swimming … or to gather before going in for afterschool basketball,” says architect Phil Fenech, the project leader. “So it’s the gathering spaces alongside the program spaces that give you that sense of intimacy.”

But perhaps we should jog around the outside, first? It’ll take a while, since Aaniin sits on its own little “island” at 14th Avenue and Middlefield Road and adjoins to a new park, Aaniin Park. This, says Mr. Fenech, meant that the building wasn’t allowed to have an ugly backside full of receiving doors, recycle bins and other assorted (yet necessary) eyesores.

“It looks good from all angles,” he says. “And it changes … the way the roof shapes, the ends, the east and the south and the west are different.”

They are different indeed, and as one jogs (okay, I drove), one is struck by how the roof undulates from seemingly too thick to too thin, from low to high, and from art object to practical shelter from the rain. This, of course, is a little trompe l’oeil, as the building’s transparency in some places means the passerby can peek inside to see the massive zigging-and-zagging timber beams continue to perform their feats of strength, while, from other vantage points, it looks as if only thin, red-painted metal posts hold everything up (they are not thin, but, compared to the scale of the building, they look that way).

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The Aaniin Community Centre is massive, at 11,334 sq. metres, but somehow finds a way to stay intimate and sheltering.Scott Norsworthy

But, let’s choose one of the many entrances and have a look inside.

The west side seems nice, plus it’s closest to the library. Enter here and the hustle-and-bustle of library patrons immediately puts one at ease. Walk inside, and the first thing an architecture aficionado will notice is how the big stair to the second floor has a mirror image on the other side of the massive glass wall.

“So it is programmed on the outside for different things, or kids can just hang,” says Markham’s director of recreation services Mary Creighton. “So it’s been a really good space for the library.”

Of course, because libraries need quiet spaces, there are nooks and cubbies and lowered ceilings, too.

Leave the library, and one might feel sheltered under a bridge or a balcony; it’s a subtle nod to Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea of compression and expansion by design lead Duff Balmer. Not easy to do in a space this size.

  • The Aaniin Community Centre, Markham, Ont. Design by Perkins & Will.Scott Norsworthy

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Walk a little more and one stumbles upon a modern amphitheatre, where a very culturally diverse audience watch football matches on a big, retractable screen. Or behind that, the amazing Ojibwe artwork that represents The Seven Grandfather Teachings, a collaboration between two local high schools and artist Tessa Shank. Across the hall there is a health club one can join.

Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the massive gymnasium – currently hosting a COVID-19 vaccination clinic – which can support three basketball courts and a 150-metre running track above. Its neighbour is the even more massive pool area.

Here, the two pools benefit from multiple window blinds on the larger windows and much smaller slit windows above to mitigate glare, which Ms. Creighton says can be a real problem. The pools – a shallow teaching pool and a six-lane pool with a deep end of 3.5 metres – are made by Myrtha Pools, which uses a modular system of stainless steel and PVC. Ms. Creighton says Olympians prefer Myrthas since no tile means water is still, and still means no drag.

But not everything is supersized at Aaniin. There are small spaces with 3-D-printing machines, lounges, creation studios, meeting rooms entrepreneurs can rent, a teaching kitchen, and, perhaps most intriguing of all, a Sensory Room designed for autistic children. Filled with jellyfish-like fibre optics, touch screens, beanbag chairs and bubbling columns of light, it’s been extremely popular, Ms. Creighton says.

“It’s very soothing and relaxing for them,” she says.

Architecturally, Aaniin Community Centre is both soothing and relaxing in some areas, and completely stimulating and forceful in others. The omnipresent warmth of wood, however, both overhead and as colour-coded siding, keeps that tension under control. The juxtaposition of smooth glass and masonry block – some of it speckled like terrazzo – keeps the eye interested and the hand reaching out to touch. The soaring, light-filled spaces might outnumber the nooks and crannies, but there are enough of those that individuals who want curl up with a book can find their happy-places as well.

It’s a big ask for one building to do all of those things, but it works here, and it shows.

“I think people do feel proud of their community buildings, and it’s important that they identify with them,” Mr. Fenech says. “And as for the popular vote, I think this one would qualify.”

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The Aaniin Community Centre was designed by Perkins & Will.Scott Norsworthy

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