Approaching New College’s Architecture – New College Alumni & Friends Magazine

APPROACHING NEW COLLEGE’S ARCHITECTURE

 

By: Terence Van Elslander

New College Alumni & Friends Magazine, 50th Anniversary Edition

Published February 2013

 

New College is best approached from the centre of the U of T campus. I recently did so by starting at Massey College, wandering through University College and Knox College, and ending up at New College – still fresh, and singularly not-Gothic. Its buildings are nonetheless college buildings, and they share many common characteristics with other college buildings. Descended from the medieval cloister, this building type has two faces: an inward and an outward – one relating to the buildings’ setting, the other creating a privileged world. It is this dual nature of the college building, simultaneously public and private, that New College expresses so well.

College courtyards form a sense of community and identity. They are reflective and contemplative spaces which always contain natural elements; when I think of the individual colleges, when I try to capture their identity, inevitably I picture their courtyards. I think of the picturesque, finely scaled Massey Courtyard; the aggregated enclosure and medievally-inclined University College; or the austere and deeply-held courtyards of Knox. The same is true here, but with the striking difference that New College has the only courtyard that contains not a garden, but a rolling landscape. In fact the landscape is not separated from the outside world; it flows openly through the courtyard and into the city.When I think of New College I think of something open and approachable.

A quiet revolutionary, New College was built at a time of rapid university expansion and when a six-lane sunken expressway was slated to replace Spadina Avenue. It was a time when cities and society were being taken apart and imagined anew. It was also a time when architects were beginning to recognize their obligation to history as much as their responsibility to the future. It is interesting that many of the buildings constructed at this time have not adapted well to the city changing around them, and appear out of time as well as out of place. Belying this fact, New College’s Wilson Hall and Wetmore Hall are landmark buildings that embraced the city by reinforcing the pattern of the street. At the same time, the buildings are dramatically modern and non-hierarchical. Their multiple paths of entry, horizontal layout and integrated living, working and studying spaces are conscious choices about the future made by the architect and members of the College. The architecture is not that of a monolithic structure, but rather that of an open organization that grows with its community.

In his work for New College,Macy DuBois, the original architect, tempered the concrete brutalism so popular during the 1960s with a Scandinavian humanism and a sense of scale. The design is deeply informed by the history of the college building type, but is in no way historicist. He built thoughtfully on the past by reinterpreting the historical typology of the college building. He created a northern building and a fine example of modern architecture’s adaptability to climate and context. The buildings are sinuous, flexible and disciplined. They contain delightful spaces with sunlight reaching deep into the lower levels. The interior public spaces are disposed in the plan like the historic loggia, which connects the courtyard to the buildings’ interiors. New College is not as exquisite or finely wrought as other university colleges, but it is still fresh. It has a beauty not just as a collection of objects, but as an environment – it is not just something you see, but something you see with.

Tasked by Principal Yves Roberge to design a gate to New College in honour of its 50th Anniversary, I asked myself how one can put an entrance to a building that strives to eliminate hierarchies and to be open from all directions, and how one can add an overtly historicist element to such a forward-looking building.

The obvious placement is along Willcocks Street. This is a busy yet underserved face of the college. An entrance here creates an excellent opportunity to relate the emerging Willcocks Common with the flowing courtyard of New College. It is also an opportunity to create functional student spaces such as outdoor seating and bicycle parking. Studying the facade of Wilson Hall, I realized that, at street level, it already forms a colonnade or portico. The portico is a classic architectural device used to relate exteriors with interiors; it is the complement of the loggia. Our proposal then would extend this composition outside the building along Willcocks. It will form a pedestrian-oriented plaza on which sits an open and free standing portico. The portico will use the rhythm, material and language of New College and, like the College itself, will gather and relate but not enclose or contain. Like the foundation that has served New College for five decades now, when fundraising is complete, the plaza will bring people together as a community that flows openly through the College and into the city.

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Published on Apr 17, 2013
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