Frit and Form
The new Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre at the University of British Columbia (UBC) enlivens the campus through its sleek façade, warm interior, and rich local references. Designed by KPMB Architects in joint venture with HCMA Architecture + Design, the $12.8-million, 41,700-sq.-ft. building welcomes current students, faculty, and university alumni alike.
At grade, the Centre is clad in a highly transparent, ceramic white frit that responds to Vancouver’s wavering climate. “When the weather changes from rain to shine, the exterior takes on a new animation,” says Shirley Blumberg, founding partner at KPMB. “I wanted the skin of the building to be kinetic and sensitive to changing light.” The service block that anchors the northeast quadrant of the building is similarly dressed in white shouldice concrete block, in reference to the extensive use of white brick strewn across UBC’s modern campus.
As visitors approach the building, the frit and glass exterior dissolves away and the warmth of the interior shines through. Here, local wood decorates prominent surfaces, such as the stairs (Douglas fir) and ceiling (rough sawn cedar). On the first floor, a café, library, conference room, and reception area populate the space; while banquets and large events are held on the second floor. Alumni offices, meeting rooms, and a lounge occupy the third and fourth floors, offering 360 degree views of the surrounding campus. Lastly, a basement level features lab space for entrepreneurial students.
Central to the interior is a staircase that bridges the different levels and moves in conversation with a nearby tree. “One of the few surviving Elm trees in British Columbia resides on the campus, so we protected it and integrated it into the design,” says Blumberg. “As you climb the stairs, you physically oscillate between the campus and the tree.”
Vancouver is located on Musqueam territory, and thus careful attention was paid to include references to First Nations history in the design. Project architect Bruno Weber met with representatives to learn more about their traditions, and infused the building with colours, materials, and inscriptions significant to the land. “We wanted to engender the Centre with a sensitivity and reference to the Musqueam tradition,” says Blumberg.
When the representatives toured the completed building, they noticed their history materialized in the staircase. “They said the form of the staircase captured the origin story of the two-headed serpent, from the way it morphs and intertwines,” she says. Though this reference wasn’t planned, KPMB was inspired to have organically captured the story in their completed design.
With a goal to achieve LEED Gold certification, the Centre also features recycled materials, charging stations for electric vehicles, and construction waste management plans. These sustainable features, coupled with a welcoming design, will ensure continued use by thousands of alumni to come.