Ryerson University Centre for Urban Innovation

Moriyama & Teshima Architects navigate a tight site and existing forms to create a modern research facility at Ryerson University.

For Phil Silverstein, the process of designing Ryerson University’s new Centre for Urban Innovation was very much like playing “the ultimate game of Tetris.” Located on the site of a century-old heritage building in downtown Toronto, the 64,260-sq.-ft. research facility needed to cleverly maneuver existing architecture and sensitively bridge the gap between old and new.

To navigate the project’s strict parameters — which also included a tight timeline and even tighter property lines — the design team flanked the original building (built in 1886 as Canada’s first school of pharmacy) with a pair of three- and five-storey additions connected below grade. Outside, the new building is deliberately set back to showcase the heritage façade, whereas inside, wet and dry laboratories take centre stage.

Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Innovation is a new facility where science research labs, fabrication, incubation, assembly spaces and commercial spaces come together to support researchers and innovators with strong industry links to alternative energy, water management, food production, body metrics and human health, data analytics and urban infrastructure.

“To keep the heritage building as a standalone structure, we created a large atrium where the two buildings abutt,” says Silverstein, who is an associate with Toronto-based Moriyama & Teshima Architects. “We also created the ability to see into the research labs from different lookout points in the atrium. We wanted anyone from the public who enters the building to have a view into these exciting spaces.”

Whereas the university’s research teams were previously spread out across the campus, they can now study urban infrastructure issues together under one roof. In addition to informal collaboration zones and lounge spaces that encourage interaction between departments, the facility also contains stepped seating in the atrium for official public gatherings and industry events.

From a materials perspective, the design team opted for surfaces that would both complement the existing building and support the innovative nature of the space. The exterior is clad in aluminum expanded metal mesh, while polished concrete, metal archways and heritage brick find a home inside. “The material expression is very honest,” says Silverstein, who draws attention to the raw mechanical elements that have been left exposed and used as ceilings to accommodate height constraints. “Every single nut and bolt had to be thought out in order to coordinate the intense level of infrastructure. It may look like the pipes have been haphazardly thrown up on the ceiling, but every square inch was determined and placed.”

Like any heritage project, it was not without its surprises. Contamination caused by old buried diesel tanks required soil remediation, while the discovery of original architectural elements added a level of interest and character to the design. “We found giant stone medallions, sliding doors, beadboards and windows that had all been covered since the 1940s,” says Silverstein of the various excavated and repurposed objects.

In the end, the facility — made possible through a $19.8 million investment from the federal government’s Strategic Investment Fund — preserves the rich history of the site and offers new opportunities for urban innovation. “When Ryerson took the building over, they had a lot of ideas of how this could come together, but it was really a pipe dream,” says Silverstein. Now, that dream is a reality, and the university’s research can thrive in a skillfully executed and thoughtful design.


Photography by Riley Snelling

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