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Phase 1 of the Quad Student Community on the Keele Campus of York University.Michael Muraz/ARK

In architecture, a dozen years is a very long time.

Back in 2005, York University’s Pond Road Residence was the new kid on the block, literally. Built where weedy fields once defined the southern border of the enormous Keele Campus – designed by a three-firm consortium called “UPACE” back in the early-1960s – the long, architectsAlliance-designed building delivered “sexy downtown condo sophistication” in the form of a “candy-coloured” curtain wall with many sustainable features, such as a green roof. It was, this space reported, the downtown “Toronto style” of condominium made accessible to students forced to live a very long trek away.

Fast-forward to my visit a week ago, and not only does York now boast a very downtown-ish subway stop, it has a very European residential building, Quad Student Community, that, forgive me, makes Pond Road Residence seem rather old-fashioned by comparison.

Phase I of Quad, completed in 2017, is a public/private, 800-plus-bed project developed and financed by Forum-Campus Suites and designed by ARK (Architects + Research + Knowledge), a successor firm to postwar modernist Irving Boigon’s (1924-2007) practice. Lead designer on the project is ARK partner Christophe Gauthier.

Quad presents itself to campus as a dark, brooding-yet-handsome, non-curtain walled, Scandinavian-like beast that doesn’t float “precariously above the earth” or try to perform “acrobatics” like its neighbours, ARK’s director Guela Solow-Ruda says.

“Ours is anchored to the ground, it’s orthogonal, it’s black, it’s not going anywhere, it’s home,” she said with a chuckle, her umbrella shielding us from the last drops of a torrential downpour. “You’re going to find it, whatever state you’re in, coming back from whatever place you’re coming back from, this thing is knowable.”

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Eden Robins/ARK

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The etchings on the buildings' sides were created by Montreal artist Nicolas Baier’s skillful manipulation of a CNC machine.Nicolas Baier/ARK

It’s true: While some university students might sway home, confused from boozy binges, it would be hard to miss the big, flat-black aluminum panels and what’s been etched onto them. The result of a York University and City of Toronto juried selection process, the twin buildings have been “tattooed” in various spots by Montreal artist Nicolas Baier’s skillful manipulation of a CNC machine – an automated machining tool – which was used to groove the panels down to their shiny sub-skin without compromising performance. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, some of Mr. Baier’s tattoos resemble lightning bolts or fibre-optic cables, while others look like lines we all made on our Etch-A-Sketches as children. And, quite serendipitously, in certain light, these lines explode, prismatically, into a rainbow.

“It’s like the experience of a student,” Ms. Solow-Ruda offered. “The infinite, the questions of theory against the rational mind, a public-scale collision of rational and irrational.”

“You can look at this line,” added Mr. Gauthier, tracing his finger along the groove. “Sometimes it’s a galaxy, and sometimes it’s an atom.”

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Microstudio units come with a Caesarstone kitchenette.Michael Muraz/ARK

Actually, that ‘macro to micro’ concept informed the architects as to how the buildings would function for students. In each, there are the tiny microstudios – each with a Caesarstone kitchenette, washroom, study-space and bed – and the larger, two-person private rooms, along with shared, four-person study suites on each floor.

Then, zooming out wider, there are the generously scaled, communal kitchen/dining rooms on each floor, the retail shops on the ground level (the all-important café being one), and, finally, the two large courtyards, one cradled by each building. The smaller of the two is garden-like, and perfect for contemplation and quiet study; the other sports a flat lawn ready for Frisbee or football.

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Michael Muraz/ARK

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The community has two courtyards – one quiet and contemplative, one wide open and perfect for sports.Michael Muraz/ARK

A resident since the building opened, 21-year-old, self-described “very shy” Julia Sestito agreed this concept has helped: “You can invite your friends over, you can have full meals with other residents on the floor in this really cool shared space; there’s also the lounge [where] you can have movie nights … and it’s just a lot of fun – having these events, it’s very welcoming.”

While the twin buildings may be broody and tattoo-y on the outside, they change to welcoming, light and airy on the inside. There is zig-zaggy, coloured wallpaper, a cheery colour-coding system to define each of the six floors and a supergraphic font and pictogram-based wayfinding system that quickly points residents to washrooms, study areas or laundry rooms – or the simple tree graphic that points the way to the courtyard. And, once outside in either of the courtyards, a look up reveals the building’s exterior is not black, but white … something even a passerby will notice.

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Coloured wallpaper brightens common areas.Eden Robins/ARK

And if this seems all very village-like and European, that’s not an accident, Mr. Gauthier said. Thinking back to the courtyards and porte cochères of his youth – he was born in a small town near Montpellier in the south of France – he wanted non-residents to get glimpses through the building into the courtyards, or the exercise room. “And you want to be there, it’s a kind of voyeurism, you know, to give you some idea of what is happening beyond,” he says. “You can see a tree there [and] you want to know why.”

“And even though you can’t physically go in,” Ms. Solow-Ruda added, “you’re psychologically part of this little community.”

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Eden Robins/ARK

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The residences feature communal dining and recreation spaces.Michael Muraz/ARK

Even the way the large site was divided and landscaped provides a more intimate feel, achieved by aligning the space between the two buildings with Boake Street to the south of the campus, and relegating service doors and freight elevators to a rear laneway.

“To make a pedestrian-scale gesture on a campus of this scale is hard,” Ms. Solow-Ruda finished.

That may be true, but ARK makes it look easy … and handsome. In a world where cyberisolation threatens to destroy community, it’s more important than ever to bring folks together, whether in city squares or campus residences. And that’s something that will be relevant in a dozen years, or 50 for that matter.

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