In designing a building for the next generation of engineers, Robert Davies and Peter Clegg were inspired by the restrained precision of the paintings of Agnes Martin.
Architects appreciate that engineers are trained to find the most direct and efficient solution to any given problem using mathematical and scientific methods. Generally, when the problem has been clearly stated, the solution is pragmatic, and ultimately forms an essential part of the building design. There is a certain 'calculable truth' that is reassuring and forms the backbone of a project—everything in its place.
Whilst designing the Myhal Center for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship for the University of Toronto, we looked to the work of the painter Agnes Martin. Martin had a life-long interest in Western and Chinese Classicism, sharing the belief that perfection can only exist in the mind. Her paintings appear at first glance to aspire to a kind of engineering precision—or perfection—but are actually about how human beings can never truly achieve perfection. When examined closely one sees that they are freely drawn, touched by human hands and not as perfect as they first appear.
In a similar sense, in the design of this building, in particular, we were interested in architecture that aspires to an idea of engineering precision while encouraging the messy and chaotic activities of human beings, an ideal of the mind with plenty of room for the body. The Myhal Center is, essentially, a building for engineering study, to be occupied by engineers.
The Myhal Center is a cube in form, 44.5 metres wide by 44.6 metres deep by 43.7 metres tall. It is best understood by an analysis of the section, which consists of three significant voids.
The first void is created by the Lee & Margaret Lau Auditorium, which takes up more than 60 per cent of Levels 1 and 2. From two main entrances on the ground floor, the tiered seating—which can accommodate up to 468 people—rises up to the second level mezzanine, where there are two other entrances.
The underside of the lecture hall seating creates the second significant void. The two-storey-high Engineering Society Arena on Level 0 was supported by a $1million gift from the students themselves, through the leadership of the Engineering Society and is designed to host a rich variety of co-curricular clubs and teams.
The third void occupies the centre of the building, rising from Level 5 through to Level 8 and is topped by six conical light shafts. This void has come to be known as the 'revealed atrium' due to the way it reveals itself without forewarning as you rise up through the building. It is the lungs and heart of the activity centres that make up the innovation and entrepreneurial programmes of the Myhal Center.
The aesthetic of the building is quiet and simple, and the material selections reflect this, starting with the decision to expose the in-situ concrete structure. The faces of the atrium consist of exposed concrete columns and beams and acoustic panels made of Douglas fir with tiny slots to absorb sound. Considerable care in the specification and workmanship of the concrete has yielded a good quality finish with square tight corners.
Elsewhere in the building the concrete and acoustic panels are complemented by Baltic birch wood panels and millwork, bronze railings and trim pieces, low-iron glass balustrades and dark grey cork wall finishes. The main public floors of the building consist of terrazzo, which is hard-wearing and easy to maintain. The finish on the raised floor is concrete tile in the public areas and carpet in the classrooms.
As in Agnes Martin's paintings, the colour palette is intentionally muted so that the occupants of the building can provide the colour as seasons and fashions change over the next 100 years.
The Myhal Center showcases an architecture that is disciplined and quiet, even understated. It is not about itself, but about the activities that will occur within it and change over time. The appearance of engineering precision prevails, with space for people and the chaos inherent in their occupation. This is an architecture that is robust and enduring.
Peter Clegg and Robert Davies