Architecture builds the character of cities and university campuses alike. U of T has always reflected-and in many cases anticipated-the architectural progression of the city of Toronto.

U of T’s building boom that is currently transforming all three U of T campuses was debated last Tuesday at a forum called “U of T’s Architectural Renaissance: Contemporary or Calamity?” Mary Alice Thring of U of T Public Affairs, Christopher Hume from the Toronto Star, and Ian Chodikoff, editor of Canadian Architect Magazine spoke to the small but lively audience at the George Ignatieff Theatre at Trinity College.

Thring presented a slide show of landmarks-old, new and not yet built-on the U of T campuses. She began with a slide of the new addition to the Ontario College of Art and Design, which she said demonstrated how much attention an award-winning design can bring a city. She then shifted to U of T itself: with 135 acres and 110 buildings on the St. George campus, “where better to experiment with design?” she asked.

Her presentation shed some light on the experiences U of T has had over the years in being both a builder and a neighbor. U of T’s last great growth spurt occurred during the 1960s when campus development came as far west as Spadina Avenue; that development worried local neighbourhoods, who feared the university’s growth would overwhelm the area. Instead, U of T, the city of Toronto, and local groups reached an agreement that selected 27 new zones where the University felt they might develop in the future; this plan, now realized, has led to the creation of some of the greenest parts of downtown.

Christopher Hume, the Star’s architecture critic, began by saying that “calamity” and “contemporary” are not mutually exclusive terms, but that the most important thing was not to settle for second rate.

Hume believes that the narrowing of St. George Street reclaimed the pedestrian traffic of the university and that it marked the beginning of the current “renaissance.” By bringing in award winning foreign architects, he said, U of T has raised its international profile and the profile of the architects who designed these buildings. University campuses, he said, need to reflect progress, rather than remain stuck in 19th century motifs. In his mind, he said, the important thing is how the University is currently thinking, and not whether the public likes all the new building designs because, in his words, “you can never please everybody.”

Chodikoff took the stage presenting another slide show but his showed the campuses of other universities (including Harvard, MIT, Columbia, McGill, and others) and their urban intensification projects.

Chodikoff showed how proper planning and impressive architecture can attract both students and research grants. He felt that Harvard was actually doing quite poorly in their planning but MIT, just down the road, was planning very well. Chodikoff also said Canadian schools like Concordia were excelling at urban intensification.

During the question period of the forum, several audience members asked whether such new designs are a tangible benefit for the University and its students. One questioner asked, “Do we need to win architectural awards to serve the needs of students?” The answer, according to the panel, was generally yes, but only if the awards affirm that the buildings meet students’ needs.

Another questioner asked the panel if it was necessary to tear down older buildings, since she felt that that hurts the historical integrity of the campus. The panel all agreed that that it does not hurt historical integrity as long as the university tears down the right buildings and replaces them with excellent facilities that provide for attractive classrooms and residences for students.

So is the architectural renaissance a calamity? The panel concurred that the answer was no.