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U of T is not simply one big space, but a conglomerate of many smaller spaces. Many of these smaller spaces are shaped with very deliberate ideas in mind, and still others are created after the fact, by happy accident. What follow are observations and stories about just a few of the small spaces and buildings that make up U of T’s environment. The following examples are best taken as items in a cabinet of curiosities, united by their relation to this place where many work, live, study, and play. Take them as an invitation to learn, be reminded, and disagree (gently or otherwise).
UTSU Building/Stewart Observatory
Many students probably recognize the UTSU building by its distinctive dome, but only some may know that the building was originally used as an observatory. Even fewer people probably know that the building is constructed from masonry that originally sat a kilometer south on King’s College Road. That observatory was completed in 1855, replacing a wooden observatory built fifteen years earlier. By 1907, though, the growth of the university around the observatory (including the construction of Convocation Hall) made using the telescope less effective and caused scientists to complain of noise and dust. The old observatory was demolished, and in 1908, its remains were worked into the very similar building that sits in Hart House Circle today. The building remained a working observatory until it was turned over to the Student’s Administrative Council in 1953. To this day, the only major change to the outside of the building (with the exception of the perennial repainting of the dome) has been the 1992 addition of a memorial to the victims of Tiananmen Square, a statue which takes the form of a crumpled bicycle on the building’s easternmost wall.
From the outside, the recently opened expansion to the Rotman School of Managment can seem intimidating, appearing as monolithic rectangles of tinted glass stacked atop one another. To get a real sense of the expansion you need to go inside, where glass is the name of the game. The transparent walls of the study rooms that populate the lower floors make it tempting to crack a joke about corporate governance. In the late afternoon, dappled light fills one of the central atriums, creating a peaceful effect. That the building is spacious and airy should come as no surprise: KPMB Architects, the talented Toronto-based firm responsible for the TIFF Lightbox amongst many other buildings, designed it.
Philosopher’s Walk isn’t just a pleasant place to eat lunch — it’s the centerpiece of an area where time unfolds in space. The walk itself snakes through a ravine that runs from Bloor down to Hoskin, which was carved out by the Taddle Creek, a now buried river which once ran through the area. According to the university, the footpath in the Walk is an attempt to trace the original path of the river itself.
To the west of the ravine is a building of the not-so-distant past, proudly displaying the Jacobethan spires of Trinity College. The original building was completed in 1925, when the college moved north from its original location on Queen Street West. In the 40s and 50s, more wings were added, creating the college building as it is today.
On the east of the ravine is the Faculty of Law — particularly the Bora Laskin Library — which brings us to the present. The library is not particularly pleasing to the eye, and one architectural firm has even referred to it as “outmoded.” That firm, Hariri Pontarini Architects, have come up with a plan to transform the law school, which includes making Bora Laskin into “a luminous pavilion.” Dean Moran of the faculty of law promises the design is one to “make the spirit soar.” Check back in 2015 to see if she’s right.
High above the western end of Hoskin Avenue looms a large, metal “O,” a companion to the “UNIVERSITY OF TORONT” wrought in glass beside it. This is a part of Graduate House. Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects, who has gone on to receive the prestigious Pritzker Prize, was a principal architect on the residence. The building opened in late 2000 and quickly sparked controversy: in a 2001 article for the magazine Canadian Architect George Thomas Kapelos wrote of a dinner party of academics, many of whom described the building “as ugly or out of place.” Kapelos himself argued for the merits of the building, saying the university ought to be a place for experimentation, in architecture as in other ways. Those at Morphosis seem to think similarly, saying the hanging “O” is meant to provoke thought over the boundary between the city and the university. Does it do the trick? No comment.
Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building
If there’s one thing that’s well-thought-out about the Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building it’s light. An empty corridor cuts vertically from the open space at the building’s base all the way to its top floor, designed to allow natural light access to each and every floor. For a less subtle example of the building’s light design, you need to walk by it at night. Inside the large area at the bottom of the building hang two ovoid pods. By day, these pods are a silvery-white colour, but at night they glow with what seems to be an inner light, which shifts as the evening progresses on. But this light isn’t inner at all; in fact, the pods are classrooms. A lighting firm from Maryland used theatre lighting techniques to create the changing colors and shifting patterns that passersby can see.
Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research
The Donnelly Centre, with its transparent glass outer walls revealing what lies within, is reminiscent of an ant farm filled with scientists. The comparison may seem silly, but it’s more apt than it seems. The building is home (or at least a home away from home) to members of several different faculties and departments and was originally conceived to get them to work together. The architects who designed the building followed suit, giving the Centre wide-open hallways and stairways in order to give its occupants space to schmooze.