Three-part harmony

The ideal is to be given a project for which there’s unlimited time and money, as well as free rein to express a single, singular artistic vision. The reality, most often, is compromise.

Reality is Max Gluskin House, 150 St. George Street, home of the School of Economics at the University of Toronto, a reno and infill project completed at the end of last year by Toronto-based Hariri Pontarini Architects. Siamak Hariri, partner-in-charge, and Michael Boxer, project architect, were faced with refurbishing and combining two extant heritage buildings — a plain Georgian revival south of a wildly ornate Victorian — with a new, modern building to the north that would also extend around to the property’s rear.

“We were dealing with a very tight [$10 million] budget stretched over 40,000 feet,” says Hariri, “so we had to be highly judicious in our use of materials. We also had no single-focused client; there were so many influences to account for because it’s institutional. You have to please people who view the same project through very different lenses — users, administration, students, facilities staff. Often ideas can get put through a meat grinder and after the process, you might end up with something quite different.”

A case in point was the combined complex’s entry point. Hariri wanted to stick with the central Victorian’s bespindled portico, so one would “begin the journey through the building moving from old to new.” Instead, the entry was set into the glass-and-steel “bridge” connecting the Victorian to the Georgian. Visitors step up a wheelchair-accessible ramp and onto a polished concrete floor. Side walls made from blackened steel, pockmarked with rough welds, frame a narrowed view of the grassy quadrangle and back building ell beyond. To the left is an ordinary office area; to the right, generously proportioned doorways and a curling staircase — all in age-darkened oak — transport one back in time. More offices and meeting rooms are upstairs.

A further bridge leads into the tinted-glass-and-steel modernity of the northern structure (also devoted mainly to offices, with additional lounges and a resource centre), but take a moment to cast an admiring glance backwards at the old building’s outer brick wall, which has been enclosed within the renovation, complete with casement windows and parking signs.

The inside-out theme runs through this architectural marriage of convenience, as if portions of the design have been deliberately everted — a brick wall here, a blackened steel extrusion there, and everywhere rust-coloured Corten. Corten helps to visually yet unobtrusively connect the outer bridge elements to the brickwork buildings, turns ordinary side staircases into amusing folded sculptural forms, and completely clads the back ell. “We wanted something that would tie in with the brick of the buildings,” says Hariri, “but we wanted it to be lighter visually and structurally, a light cladding with softer material facing the interior courtyard, like the lining of a suit jacket.” What the team was really going for, he continues, is a kind of “New York Chelsea gallery look — a durable and affordable aesthetic, rugged but warm. A bit like a warehouse loft.”

Since the School of Economics boasts the largest 101 class at the university and a huge student body must access the complex’s administration and professorial offices, it was imperative that all building materials be capable of standing up to repeated use and abuse. Thus the polished linoleum and concrete floors; the rough steel and salvaged bricks; the raw, sandblasted Douglas fir timbers and square-milled ceiling planks that enliven the main-floor hallway and gathering space overlooking the grass quad. Inside-out, too, are such multiple interior views of exterior nature, allowable by the complex’s frequency and size of glass walls and windows.

Max Gluskin House is not a house at all, but rather three distinct icons of differing architectural eras that normally would war against each other. That they have been unified through clean, simple lines and well-crafted motifs is a tribute to the Hariri Pontarini ingenuity. As for any necessary compromise involved, Hariri says he welcomed it: “We are not building a big, new thing. We’re respecting the old and building on it. Call it humane heritage.

“We want to work with buildings that are well-loved. Hopefully we’re doing something that people will also take delight in and love.” CI