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London-based architects to design pharmacy building

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A British architectural firm known for important, but sometimes controversial, structures has won the competition to design a new pharmacy building to supplant the historic greenhouses at Queen’s Park Crescent.

The U of T architect selection committee based its decision on criteria including consideration of site restrictions, nearby heritage buildings, green space, budgetary restrictions and time constraints, said Larry Wayne Richards, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design.

In choosing Foster and Partners over two other finalists, the selectors asked who would be “most likely to produce an innovative building representing the aspirations of Pharmacy, yet do a ‘classic,’ elegant work of architecture that will be enduring and fitting for the prominent Queen’s Park, College-University Avenue location,” said Richards.

The winning firm, headed by Norman Lord Foster of Thameside, gained notoriety recently in Britain for the Millennium Bridge it designed in London, a Thames River footbridge jinxed by engineering problems. It opened two years late, over budget and dubbed by the British press “the wobbly Millennium Bridge.”

As well, somewhat ironically, Foster and Partners is also the designer of Great Glass House, a greenhouse structure in Wales billed as the largest single-span glasshouse in the world and home to thousands of plants, many of which are endangered species.

In its winning proposal for the Toronto project—to be a pair of side-by-side buildings—the Foster company urged the university to seek city rezoning permission for taller structures than currently allowed on the site.

The projected structures, partly financed by the pharmaceutical industry and named for one of its leading executives, Leslie L. Dan, has been in the works for almost a decade.

Planners expect enrolment in Pharmacy will double to 240 students a year by 2005, the target year for completion of construction. Pharmacy still needs to raise $18 million to finance the $70 million structure.

The heritage greenhouses are being replaced by modern, $5.5 million glasshouses currently under construction on top of the Earth Sciences Centre. They are being financed by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Innovation Trust.

John Coleman, the chair of Botany and a member of the U of T Arabidopsis Research Group, says he is “tremendously excited” because he believes current research projects involving plant evolutionary, molecular and cell biology will be enhanced by the new climate-controlled facility.

“By the time they are done, we are going to have the best plant growth facilities probably in North America,” he said.

Botany is making preparations to relocate part of its sensitive century-old plant collection to the new state-of-the-art greenhouses. Some species will be moved to other locations throughout the city.

However, the Pharmacy project has provoked controversy among critics who believe the historic greenhouses ought to stay, perhaps incorporated into the new buildings. The university will demolish most of the labyrinthine structure but is negotiating with the city to move a portion of it to Allan Gardens.

In their presentation, London-based Foster proposed a glass lower level designed to retain visibility of the building north of the greenhouses—the Tanz Neuroscience Building, constructed in 1932 as the Botany Building. According to the company, it would also give the illusion that the projected Pharmacy building is afloat.

In proposing revision of zoning governed now by next-door heritage structures, including the Tanz building, Foster suggested that the increased height would provide greater uniformity with the Hydro Building across College Street and two other major construction projects planned for the intersection.

Ron Venter, the university’s vice-provost of space and facilities planning, said a rezoning of the site is unlikely. “It is just people having great ideas,” he remarked. “It’s speculation.”