Seven years ago the Ryerson Image Arts Centre planned a modest $5-million expenditure to add a gallery to display the Black Star Collection of 20th-century black and white photographs.
Ryerson University's initial call for design proposals asked for a gallery to be built atop the low-rise building that has for decades housed the university's photography and, more recently, new media programs.
When the gallery opens Sept. 29 during Nuit Blanche, the all-night city-wide art show, the former beer warehouse will stand out as a beacon, swirling with glowing, shifting light.
Located in the heart of Toronto, one block north of Dundas Square, the Image Arts Centre has already won a light and architecture award for best use of "exuberant" colour on its exterior canvas. Opaque glass cladding on four sides of the upper floors conceals an LED lighting system that can be programmed to change into millions of colour combinations.
Prior to the renovation, the unremarkable yellow-brick building was best known as a backdrop for Devonian Park, a summer reflecting pond and winter skating rink populated with massive boulders, at the corner of Bond and Gould streets.
Diamond Schmitt Architects' winning design proposal turned Ryerson's project on its head.
"We said we didn't think it [putting the gallery on top] was a good idea," lead architect Donald Schmitt said. "We thought the gallery should be facing the city with a very public point of access and with visibility and prominence on Lake Devo."
Ryerson's board agreed and eventually the building cost rose significantly, largely due to structural inadequacies discovered in the old building. "It was a good storage place for beer," Mr. Schmitt said. "But it wasn't designed with students in mind."
It took seven years, a $65-million budget increase and considerable imagination and discussion as the idea evolved from creating a gallery to creating a new media showpiece building that makes a highly visible statement on the urban campus.
In recognition of Ryerson's long involvement in communications and photojournalism, an anonymous donor gave the iconic Black Star photography collection to the university on the condition that it provide gallery space where portions of the 290,000 images from the Black Star photo agency could be displayed. The agency was set up in New York in the 1930s by three Jewish refugees fleeing Europe before the Second World War.
Ryerson hopes its Image Arts Centre and the free-admission gallery will become a new cultural destination for Toronto.
Inspired by the growing vision of the building, Ryerson's new media department was asked to develop a smartphone application that will allow passersby to interact with the lighting program and create their own colours and patterns, said David Bouchard, the assistant professor who led a student team that developed the app.
Designed to be accessible on the Internet rather than downloaded, all smartphones, including non-app-friendly BlackBerries, will be able to use it, Prof. Bouchard said.
"I think we'll see some very interesting light creations emerge as people get familiar with the app and what it can do," Prof. Bouchard said. "We want the campus to stand out and to attract more people to it with the lighting."
While interactivity will be available to the general public at times, during other periods Ryerson will retain control of the illumination program to feature the university's colours or special lighting programs to recognize distinguished visitors or important events, President Sheldon Levy said.
"The building will be speaking to the city through its lighting," Dr. Levy added. "Ryerson is one of the leading universities in digital media and a large portion of our faculty and students are involved in some way with the technology of communications. The Image Arts Centre is an architectural example of our leadership in that space."
To give Ryerson a prominent gateway on Yonge Street, Ryerson is also building a student centre on the old Sam the Record Man site. When it is complete in two years, it will allow the Image Arts Centre to be visible through the student centre's legs, from Yonge Street as well as from Dundas Square and, to a lesser degree, Church Street.
GVA Lighting of Mississauga is one of several Toronto-area lighting specialists, including lighting designer Ion Luh, Consullux Lighting Consultants and Rutenberg Sales, who helped to create the lighting scheme.
With technological advances, architectural lighting is being used to make buildings, such as Toronto's CN Tower, stand out and brighten the night skyline, said Vladimir Grigorik, founder and CEO of GVA, which has been involved in a number of Canadian and international lighting projects.
"Some people call it archi-tainment, architecture as a form of entertainment," Mr. Grigorik said. "It's a beautification of cities and it can make architecture even more attractive and striking" as it did when combined with Ryerson's conversion of the beer warehouse.
Others may question whether flashy spectacle is as valuable as a building with good bone structure.
But when the Image Arts Centre launches with its striking lighting display during Nuit Blanche, the city will have an opportunity to reflect on the lively role that lighting can play in the future of architecture and communications.
Up in lights
Lighting applications are becoming popular architectural features:
Toronto's CN Tower
Lit with a 1,330-bulb LED system in 2007 at a cost of $2.5-million.
Empire State Building
Installed a 1,200-LED light system in May of 2012 to update 400 standard lamps installed to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial in 1976.
Toronto's Trump Tower
Fitted with a corner spire light that runs from the ground up the 57-storey luxury hotel and condo building.
Hong Kong's Symphony of Lights
Under the Harbour Lighting plan, 44 buildings on either side of Victoria Harbour explode each night in a 14-minute lighting performance highlighting the city's architecture, history and cultural diversity.
Hong Kong Cultural Centre and Museum of Art
GVA Lighting of Mississauga manufactured the lighting system used by this notable participant in Hong Kong's Symphony of Lights.