Text description provided by the architects. Relocating from the University of Waterloo campus to the century-old Riverside Silk Mills in Cambridge Ontario, the new School of Architecture has repositioned itself as a model for the instruction of architecture, sustainable design and urban renewal.
Anchored on the bank of the Grand River, the School is a beacon within Cambridge’s downtown core. A formal rhythm between the regular brick and masonry piers of the historic façade and the new steelframe windows is emblematic of the architectural strategy of re-presenting the existing structure with contemporary details that redefine the building.
On the interior, the former factory’s expansive floorplate translates into dynamic, open studios and critique spaces. The architects carved out a central atrium that establishes an airy, three-storey hub punctuated by blackened-steel cantilevered staircases, providing sweeping views of the river and the surrounding activities. Adjacent to the atrium are key amenities such as the ground floor auditorium, the second floor library and mezzanine lounge and the third floor critique space. Since it is impossible to move through the School without passing through the atrium, this space continuously offers itself as a place of interaction and collaboration. The School’s “students first” philosophy manifests itself in the privileged positioning of student spaces such as the café, gym and library overlooking the river.
By design, the School of Architecture is a didactic model of building assembly. Exposed connections and mechanical systems demonstrate their own utility and construction. Porous spaces frame views of things being made. A conscious decision “not to design too much” renders most surfaces raw and durable, suited to exhibition, intervention and creativity. Even bathroom stalls are fabricated from pin boards. Distinctive spaces such as the auditorium and the library are elevated by employing finer materials and craftsmanship.
Waterloo’s emphasis on the craft of architecture is highlighted though select details such as the custom-designed glass canopy over the main entrance that casts the word “ARCHITECTURE” underfoot and along the old masonry wall, the reverse treads cut into the feature staircases that emphasize a sense of descending into the sunken auditorium and the new fenestration and concrete panel exterior at the river face.
Practicality and sustainability were driving factors for all design and material selections, reinforcing the notion that quality design can no longer be skin deep. This also minimized the amount of new material required and construction waste produced. A budget of $30/m2 and 14 months to design and construct, established a “maximum reuse” architectural parti, allowing construction to begin immediately while the design was still underway.
Funded by local businesses as well as all levels of government, the project is a model for public-private partnerships. It augments the University’s facilities and serves as an instrument of knowledge and experience for the profession. It has enabled Cambridge to remediate a prominent brownfield site, extend its downtown core, reconnect its “Riverwalk” promenade and provide the public with access to a riverfront café, a design gallery and an auditorium that hosts community functions. The staff and students have instantly invigorated the local economy and since the school operates day and night, it continuously animates the City.