A bang-up job

The City – you gotta love it. First the powers that be mandate the repurposing of “gun culture” spaces, such as the former indoor rifle range at Toronto’s Don Montgomery Community Centre. Then, just as the project gets underway, they slash the budget. “It’s always a challenge, working with a municipality,” Geri Tino says  diplomatically, before adding that City of Toronto reps were “wonderful to work with.” An associate at Oakville’s ATA Architects Inc., Tino laboured with principal Alexander Temporale to turn the dark, dingy, wedge-shaped box of a building into a shiny, new, multi-use area filled with energy and light.

Located in Scarborough, the Don Montgomery Youth Centre was not only designed with young people in mind, it was actually co-created by the neighbourhood Building It To Suit Youth, or BITSY, committee, over a period of nine four-hour sessions facilitated by Tino. Starting with the shell of the old structure, the design team riffed on its angularity: slashing  similar wedge-like windows with oddly juxtaposed mullions through the solid brick, installing colourful zigzagging “fins” that offer the suggestion of walls without any enclosure; taking ordinary mechanical ducts and twisting them into sculptural swoops and swirls that mimic the vitality of graffiti lettering. 

They opened up the small east wing in more ways than one, adding glass-walled office spaces, a glass door for the new wheelchair-accessible entrance, and large interior glass windows that overlook the community centre’s lower corridor. These allow people to see and be seen, connecting them to the activity both inside and beyond, and giving the dynamics of the space a greater synergistic flow. Even the long, multi-purpose room that lowers from two storeys to one and stretches to the back wall can be divided in half by unfolding a glazed partition Nano-wall, which too boasts its own glass doorway.

This room, featuring a sprung floor in natural maple and an angular-framed mirror at the far end, can accommodate a host of interests, from yoga classes to drum circles, as well as a variety of dance classes, including Glee-style dance and music mash-ups for special-needs kids. The rest of the woodwork – doors, benches, extra-wide baseboards and window frames – is all solid bamboo plywood, save for the matching laminate added to two storage-room doors for durability’s sake. Atop that, though, sits a slab of real bamboo with a sharply angled side, a feature piece meant as nothing more than a neat complement to the space’s overall vibe.  

Closer examination of wooden elements used throughout the multi-purpose room, vestibule and office area reveals an interesting kinetic detailing. Tino deliberately left the ends of each three- and five-ply board exposed, so the edges present a striated cross-grain pattern that serves to ramp up the space’s rhythmical vigour. 

Overhead, linear fluorescents, scattered at the same seemingly random angles as the window mullions like a giant game of pick-up sticks, get in on the action too. And that angularity keeps repeating – from the long, slanted reveals carved directly into one patch of the multi-purpose room’s drywall down to the smallest of fittings, such as the acutely bent nickel-plated coat hooks and door handles in the office area. The idea of designer-cum-graffiti-artist can also be seen in the building’s circular ventilation grids, the grey-and-white scratchitti-like lines on the boardroom/lounge’s countertop, and the sudden shot of gold in a single cupboard door, juxtaposed against pewter-shaded millwork. 

With all this vibrancy on display, it’s hard to believe that the space’s original directive was for “California cool,” all muted shades and laid-back attitude. Yet so claims Tino, who credits her BITSY advisors for the more youth-driven direction, one that also extends to the building’s exterior. Here, the window slashes on the outer walls are punctuated above by large, cobalt-blue aluminum panels, each intercut with its own series of reveals that echo the mullions beneath. The windows themselves are made from low e-solar glass, which offers a cool, tinted-car-window effect in the daytime. “Instead of blank walls staring at the houses beyond, the windows open a visual dialogue with the neighbourhood,” she says, adding, “I’ve driven by at night, and it just glows.”

At the 2011 Design Exchange Awards, ATA Architects received an Honourable Mention for the Don Montgomery Youth Centre. The reward for Tino, however, was in stepping up to the challenges presented by the City, the collaborative committee system, and the building itself. Ultimately, for her: “It was a fun, full project. Working with the people in the community – it’s beyond a job. It becomes a cause.” cI