Ahead In The Cloud
Janusz Kozinski is proud and excited. The new, hands-on dean of York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering oversees a tripartite campus-within-a-campus, comprising the Lassonde computer engineering building, the Petrie earth and space science and engineering building, and the Bergeron Centre for mechanical, civil and electrical engineering, all clustered together at the southwestern edge of the university’s property line in north Toronto.
But it is the just opened, $69-million Bergeron Centre, brilliantly designed by Costas Catsaros and Ella Mamiche of Toronto’s ZAS Architects + Interiors, that’s got him beaming today. “We were quite clear from the onset that this was not to be just another engineering school,” he says, “and its design certainly indicates this.”
Built with BIM technology to a mathematically precise algorithm, the building is a five-storey-high “cloud” of triangulated glass floating above a curvaceous concrete “rock” islanded on a sloping landscape. The façade’s myriad facets permit light to flow inside during the day, blaze outside at night; its unique undulating exterior blends in with the sky, refracted reflections making it seem in a constant state of flux.
The 170,000-sq.ft., LEED Gold facility has been named after entrepreneur Doug Bergeron, who graduated from York in 1983 with a major in computer science. His and his wife, Sandra’s, massive contribution to the Lassonde School came in part because they were impressed by its 50/50 Challenge, aiming to be the first engineering school in Canada to attain student and staff gender parity. Kozinski states that this goal has already been achieved on the new school’s teaching side. (The North American average for female engineering students is 18 per cent; female professors sits at a lowly eight per cent. When she hears these figures, Ella Mamiche, ZAS principal and lead interior designer of the Bergeron Centre, whispers to me with all the superiority of her Eastern European background, “In Poland, we’ve had parity for decades.”)
The idea of inclusion naturally rolls out of the equality issue, leading to Kozinski’s second criteria for the building’s design, the concept of “flipped classrooms.” Rather than the traditional school schematic of staff offices occupying the windowed periphery with a core of lecture and seminar rooms dominated by a professor at a blackboard, ZAS twisted it around. Student-focused meeting areas and lounges that stimulate social interaction among all academic levels have been situated along the outside curves; offices are slotted into the central space. In addition, says Kozinski: “There are zero lecture halls, no amphitheatres. That’s passé education. The new generation has a short attention span. They can’t sit and consume information. They’ve got to participate, learn by doing – something we call ‘active learning.’” Some active learning could come about almost by osmosis. Mamiche says she carefully situated social spaces near to high-intensity research and academic areas, in order to facilitate “the cross-pollination of ideas and creativity among students and faculty.”
Nearly half the school’s curriculum is online and can be accessed from anywhere. Students on campus are therefore encouraged by example and by design to spend their time with or without their professors, clustered in small groups, solving problems. To accommodate this fluid learning process, Mamiche created flexible, omni-purpose spaces with plenty of computer plug-ins and whiteboards. Many of the walls, including those along the circulation areas as well as the banks of lockers, are finished in writable paint, ideal for spur-of-the-moment scribbling. Oddly enough, Mamiche adds, the availability of so much writing space has greatly reduced the amount of graffiti the university usually sees. On nice days, classes and socializing can move easily out of doors, with students sitting along the Bergeron Centre’s terraced edges, or down on the grassy sward that overlooks a nearby conservation area, with Toronto’s jagged skyline spiking up through the horizon.
The relaxed, collaborative indoor atmosphere – dotted with ad hoc workspaces, a café, student-run clubs, and a design commons called the Sandbox – most closely resembles a modern, tech-oriented office place. The floor’s vinyl and porcelain tiles mimic cool concrete; overhead, twisting mechanicals and tumbled fluorescent-tube lights predominate, punctuated by the occasional triangular slab that merely sketches in the idea of a dropped ceiling. The triangular motif crops up again and again throughout the interior, even showing up in upholstery fabric and window mini-decals. To Mamiche and Catsaros, the triangle represents the purest, most pleasing geometric form. To Dean Kozinski, it relates to the three engineering pillars of the Lassonde School.
The correlation between the Bergeron Centre’s interior and a real work environment is deliberate, bound to Kozinski’s third design criteria of the Renaissance Engineer. As he describes it, the school must prepare students for life outside of academia. “Most will be self-employed and need to understand legalities, ethics, and the business of engineering, as well as how a variety of disciplines can interact with and impact their chosen speciality,” he says. The Lassonde School of Engineering has therefore partnered with York’s Schulich School of Business and Osgoode Hall Law School to help create a more rounded next-gen graduate, one who uses creativity, entrepreneurial skills and social awareness to solve 21st century challenges.
As for the challenge of building the Bergeron Centre, ZAS has already given the school’s students an enduring illustration of mathematical and multidisciplinary excellence. Needless to say, Dean Kozinski couldn’t be prouder.
Smashing Good Fun
The Bergeron Centre boasts an enviable selection of hands-on labs. But, hands down, the most impressive is its Highbay Materials Lab. This multi-storey structure was built as a “building within a building,” insulated from noise, dust and vibration, with a one-meter-thick concrete floor and meter-and-a-half concrete reaction walls, the latter perforated to hold steel anchor rods. Why all this engineering overkill? So students can perform stress tests on large structural materials in the kind of space previously available only to engineers in the field. Or, if they don’t want to get their hands dirty, they can always view the proceedings from the lab’s elevated steel-and-concrete walkway.