The Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto (U of T) is designed to be “quiet and simple,” says Robert Davies, a principal at Montgomery Sisam Architects, and was intended “to fit comfortably with its neighbours — not standing out but politely joining in.”
The building, part of U of T’s faculty of applied science and engineering, is situated on George Street on the university’s downtown Toronto campus and will provide a state-of-the-art, collaborative space to drive engineering education forward and develop the next generation of engineers, said Cristina Amon, the faculty’s dean, during the building’s grand opening on April 27.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era of engineering education and research,” she said.
“The building we are in now will fundamentally transform the way we teach and learn. It will spark collaboration across disciplines and will foster creativity among our students, faculty, staff, alumni and industry partners, providing space to develop engineers who are more prepared to innovate, to lead, to generate solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges and to create entirely new technologies.”
According to a release issued by the university, the building includes flexible, technology enhanced active learning spaces, fabrication facilities to support both curricular and co-curricular design projects and dedicated space for student clubs and teams.
It was constructed by Bird Construction and designed by Montgomery Sisam Architects. Construction started in May 2015 and will continue for a few more months to complete the upper floor occupancy and landscaping, explained Jamie Brenneman, a project manager with Bird.
“They tried to use as many environmentally efficient principles in the design as they could — an extra layer of insultation on the outside, solar panels and a groundwater system that reuses stormwater for irrigation,” explained Brenneman, adding the inside features exposed finished concrete to give the building an industrial look.
“Like any downtown building, obviously your footprint is a challenge logistically. There is a high groundwater table and that was a challenge and you’ve got active buildings all around so safety is a paramount concern.”
According to Davies, the main design inspiration for the centre came from the work of painter Agnes Martin.
“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,” stated Davies in an email to the Daily Commercial News.
“In a similar sense, we are 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.”
Davies described the centre as showcasing an architecture that is “disciplined and quiet, understated even — not about itself but about the activities that will occur within it and change over time.”
The building is best understood by an analysis of the section that consists of three significant voids, he noted.
“The first void is created by the Lee and Margaret Lau Auditorium and comprises more than 60 per cent of the first two floors of the building,” explained Davies.
“The underside of the tiered seating of the lecture hall creates the second significant void of the building through an opening in the ground floor to the two-storey-high Engineering Society Arena below. The third void occupies the centre of the building, rising from floors five through eight and 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 visitors rise up through the building.”
The biggest challenge for the architect was obtaining approval from the City of Toronto planning department, he said, adding while it was a struggle the architects and the university prevailed in the end.
The centre is named in honour of George and Rayla Myhal and family who have been longtime volunteers and advocates for engineering and the university. George Myhal served for more than a decade on the University’s Governing Council and continues to advise the faculty through the Dean’s Strategic Council.
“In this time of rapid change and uncertainty, engineering has never had a bigger relevance to our lives, or a greater future,” said George Myhal, who was a student in the faculty in the late ‘70s.
“We need to make sure that our school remains on the vanguard of engineering education, by making it the very best it can be. Today, we have a world-class faculty, a world-class student body and world-class infrastructure.”
The Myhal Centre provides a new home to many of the faculty’s multidisciplinary research institutes and centres, including the Centre for Global Engineering, the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Institute for Water Innovation, as well as educational initiatives such as the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, the Institute for Multidisciplinary Design and Innovation and the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering.