Class act

Since joining creative forces and founding Gow Hastings Architects eight years ago, Valerie Gow and Philip Hastings have pursued a career that’s somewhat unusual for a young Toronto design office. The couple began, like most emerging architects, with small renovations — redoing bathrooms, replacing windows and such. But while they expected to soon move on to the crafting of freestanding buildings, the pair quickly discovered their distinct flair for the overhaul of existing institutional interiors. Little commissions along this line led to bigger ones, speeding Gow Hastings on its way to what the company is today: a small but important creator of fresh, innovative interiors for Toronto-area colleges.

Take, for example, the firm’s recently completed $2-million, 12,335-square-foot renewal of Ryerson University’s School of Interior Design. The school’s home, in a cluster of Victorian brick warehouses with insufficient lighting and poor floorplan layouts, called most urgently for brightness and clarification. The reply of Valerie Gow (an alumna of the school) involved the thorough opening and reshaping of the old interior. The offices were pushed to the front of the building to give new prominence to the main entrance on Church Street, and the classrooms and corridors were outfitted with tall walls of glass, frosted and clear, alternating with opaque elements. The mood of the space was changed from warren-like density in the old configuration to open-plan lightness.

Among the most attractive aspects of the project, and one that is typical of Gow Hastings’ renovations, is its chromatic treatment. “I really like the bold use of colour,” Gow says. “In all our projects, we try to define a focal point for the space, then try to play off from that. We like to use a fairly neutral palette for the majority of the space, then accent it with really strong colours.”

In the Ryerson exercise, the basic colour scheme has been provided by the historic fabric of unpainted wooden pillars and beams, and by blond brick walls, often perforated by large windows. To this warm ensemble, Gow added dashes of strong pink here and there to lend a sense of chic contemporaneity to the plan.

In another interesting use of light and colour, Gow refashioned a previously awkward transition from one floor level to another with a ramp that is washed in boldly coloured light, ranging from deep blue-violet to hot red. This move transforms what had been a problem into a delightful passage through the renewed interior of the building.

Other large-scale reformations in Gow Hastings’ portfolio include the George Brown College Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts, a reno with Kearns Mancini Architects; and the $3.4-million, state-of-the-art Canadian Centre of Culinary Arts and Science at Humber College.

One of the biggest recent projects on Gow Hastings’ list is Humber’s 95,000-square-foot Centre for Trades and Technology. Located in a former furniture warehouse, this facility offers training stations for students in such skilled crafts as woodworking, welding, plumbing and electrical work. The firm has opened the interior of this industrial building to natural light by installing a 100-foot bay window at the rear and punching clerestory windows along a roofline heightened for this purpose.

Another expansive venture of the firm is the student centre at Humber College. This complex of student government offices, games rooms and a cafeteria embodies well the transparency and colour that delight the partners. Glass walls provide views through and natural lighting, while some of the glazing has been covered with delicately patterned laminate, or splashed with strong red and orange, to invite visual liveliness into the otherwise tough-surfaced interior.

Also for Humber, Gow Hastings has renovated a former car dealership near the campus to create the college’s Centre for Justice Leadership. The west and south facades of the building are draped with an aluminum screen (slashed by a green wall of ivy) that suggests dynamic, fluid movement, relaxing over the main entrance, then tightening across the building’s south face. The structure contains both well-furnished classrooms and expert crime laboratories.

Along with these large-canvas undertakings, the firm has also completed a number of tightly focused, highly specialized productions. These include a 1,420-square-foot bartending and drink-mixing lab for George Brown College, and a music production facility and recording studio for Humber College.

Though one doesn’t usually find both labs and slick interior designs together in a single architectural firm’s portfolio, science and art rest comfortably alongside each other in Gow Hastings’ list of projects. Before studying architecture at the University of British Columbia, Philip Hastings completed a degree in biology at McGill University. Valerie Gow, similarly, has a hybrid educational history, having graduated both in interior design from Ryerson and in architecture from UBC. The pair has travelled extensively, and they have worked in London, Vancouver and Toronto.

In their widely varied work, Hastings says, “It’s always there — living surrounded by architecture in an old city like London, the biology background, the history of living in foreign places. And our personality also comes out in projects, which are playful, light-hearted. But it’s hard to shy away from the kind of rigour you develop as a scientist. We do a lot of laying out things, testing them, building up projects on solid foundations.”

Over the brief, busy life of their award-winning firm, Gow and Hastings have found a way to do such solid building within the constraints of tight time frames and budgets. “We are an office that has developed out of projects, rather than being theory-based or teaching-based,” Hastings says. “Some are literally designed in a couple of weeks.”

Gow and Hastings agree that a top priority for the firm is the design of a freestanding building. But for the time being, they are keeping active with the institutional renovations they’ve proven themselves very good at. Anyway, they’ve come rather to like the process of knocking out the interiors of old buildings and inserting something new and exciting into them. “We shy away from very clear, simple solutions,” Hastings says. “We’re being handed sometimes near-impossible projects. We’re young enough and foolish enough to embark on those projects, and see what we can do.” CI