The city builders of today

On Nov. 8, the TIFF Bell Lightbox opened its theatre doors to “Who Builds the City?”, a symposium that included architects, educators and curators from around the globe to discuss the ways in which architectural institutions– publishers, museums, schools and governments– help build their cities.

“We are now in the business of reproducing ourselves,” said Richard Sommer, dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. The dimly lit theatre was half-full and Sommer, the moderator, sat cross-legged among four speakers ready to debate the role universities play in conceptualizing the city.
The panel consisted of architects Marina Verzier, Ignacio Galan, Anna-Maria Meister and Ryerson’s very own Chair of the Department of Architectural Science Colin Ripley.

“Every time you walk down the street, you’re learning something about architecture,” explains Ripley. “Half of what you do, you do based on your lived experiences.”

Ryerson University aims to do just that. Through city building and long-term sustainability, Ryerson’s “Master Plan” aims to create a more prominent role for the university within the urban fabric of Toronto.

“It’s the most intensive way of communicating with our community outside our walls,” explains Ripley on the Ryerson Image Centre. “It helped us to do something we needed to do in a more significant way.”

But Ryerson isn’t the only school cultivating ideas that will urbanize the environment.

University of Toronto’s recent projects, Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab) and Tower Renewal have had a large influence on architecture and urbanism in Toronto, through testing the environmental performance of green roofs and improving the city’s concrete apartment towers and the neighborhoods surrounding them.

“We have to look at who builds your architecture as well,” explains Verzier, director of Global Network Programming at Studio-X. “We change cities according to the environment, but environmental design has different meanings globally.”

Studio-X is a prototype of the school of the future, combining the classic university model with the power of networking. It allows the best minds from Colombia University to collaborate with those in Amman, Beijing, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Mumbai, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Tokyo.

Schools are designed to be a place where ideas that will urbanize the environment are cultivated, and the research done to be advocated directly to changing things in collaboration with the government. Studio-X allows students to experience politics, social issues, and economy, strengthening  their understanding of surrounding environments, allowing for meaningful change.

“The school has to become the student,” explained Verzier. “This is an example of a new marginal form of school created by people with interest to do things different.”

The panel discussed the importance of research, practice and profession in schools, and the enormity of their roles.

“They’re all part of a mandate to make a better environment, which is the primary goal of our institution,” added Ripley.

“We put a lot of emphasis on creating common spaces and great landscaping,” explained Ryerson University President and Vice-Chancellor Sheldon Levy. Levy has helped the school undergo significant changes including the Mattamy Athletic Centre, the Ryerson Image Centre, the new Student Learning Centre as well as an upcoming Church Street development – all part of Ryerson’s Master Plan which began in 2008. The Church Street Development will house the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing, the Midwifery Education, School of Nutrition and School of Occupational and Public Health come fall 2018.

The panel shared the belief that education was the site to make change. However, architecture is constantly re-defining what its tools and goals are.

“Architects are a different species,” explained Sommer, “and the purpose of the school is to produce these species.”

[P]hoto by Emma Geneva