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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Closed for the Winter

We've just had our first significant snowfall in Toronto and the campus maintenance people have sprung into action. The main ramp leading into my building from the subway station has been closed for the winter. You may recall that this is the entrance where the expensive stone walkway is useless [If you build it, will they follow?].

Toronto is in Canada. In Canada we have real winters, with snow and ice. You may be asking yourself why anyone would build an entrance that has to be shut down for five months of the year. That's a very good question.

This entrance was constructed a few years ago when the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research (CCBR) was built. The ramp consists of wood slats with about one centimeter spaces between them. I'm told that a special kind of wood was used and it's very expensive.

Here's the problem as it was explained to me. First, it is difficult to clean ice and snow from a wooden walkway without damaging it. Second, when this kind of wood gets wet it becomes very slippery. That means you can't use salt to get rid of the ice without creating dangerous conditions in the winter.

I'm told that the university and the architects have been unable to reach agreement on who should fix this problem.

CCBR was designed by the architectural firms of Alliance & Behnisch Architekten. The architects won the Royal Institute of British Architects Awards (RIBA) in 2006 for this building [RIBA 2006]. They also won the Governor General's Medal in Architecture for 2008 for this building.

Here's part of the press release from the University of Toronto.

The Governor General's Medals in Architecture recognize outstanding achievement in recently built projects by Canadian architects. These awards are administered jointly with the Canada Council for the Arts, which is responsible for the adjudication process and contributes to the publication highlighting the medal winners. The recipients of the 2008 Governor General's Medals in Architecture were selected by a jury of distinguished architects.

Elizabeth Sisam, assistant vice-president (campus and facilities planning), said buildings like the Donnelly CCBR are very complex and boast many notable features.

"The CCBR is a very clever design that knits the Medical Science Building to the CCBR while being respectful of the heritage buildings and at the same time maintains and enhances pedestrian routes and entrances through to the campus," Sisam said. "Below grade, there are research laboratories that extend all the way to the sidewalk. The inside of the building in the area of the laboratories is a flexible design allowing the research teams to expand and contract. The exterior has a very unique treatment, a 'double façade' which is an excellent example of sustainable design."
The original design did not "knit the Medical Science Building to the CCBR." That was only added after many of us complained about the original design and the Dean of Medicine (David Naylor) intervened to provide extra funding to build the proper connection. In the original plan the buildings would have been quite separate.

The end product does not "maintain and enhance pedestrian routes and entrances through to the campus." The entrance off College St. requires that you climb up an annoying two flights of steps inside the building before gaining access to the lobby where the cafeteria is located. The direct entrance to this lobby from the other side (see photo above) could only be considered an "enhancement" by someone with a wicked sense of humour.


  1. One more data-point for my thesis that modern architecture is dominated by a bunch of prima donnas using other people's money to build monuments to their own egos (though they call it "artistic vision") with little or no consideration for useability, weather-resistance or indeed much of anything in practical. And even the aesthetic often seem, well...maybe if you went to architecture college you would appreciate it. Us ordinary philistines, not so much.

  2. Don't forget to mention the dying bamboo garden near the main entrance which was supposed to be part of the "environmental control" of the building. Just the other day I was walking by there and a huge tree can falling down right on top of one of the benches in the garden. Thank goodness no one was sitting there at the time. Last I heard the plan is to let this garden die off before trying to replace it with something better suited for indoor living. And then there's the leaking water pipes which drowned our confocal microscope a few years ago, the large cockroaches in the garden, and those damn wooden doors for the labs! The maintainance guys gave us hell when we wanted to cover up the windowed wooden door to one of our support rooms because of the expense of the wood and damage that would be inflicted by the nails. Sheesh.

  3. I hope the slopes up Mount Improbable aren't as slippery as this; if they are I'm going have to eat humble pie when I get back to the ID people.

  4. Ha! I can recall a commercial computer centre being built with no staff toilets (that got an award too).

    I actually worked in a tall (for the UK) building which had express lifts that made you feel sick (until they were slowed down) and a continuous chain document lift which kept breaking down and was eventually found to have a drift of 'lost' documents at the bottom.