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Life in High REZ
by Anne Cormier, published 2013-07-05
With the launch of the REZ - Student Competition for the Design of a University Residence Building in downtown Toronto, Canada international ideas competition, competition organizers invited students in the fields of architecture, engineering, interior design, urban planning, and landscape architecture to reflect on the nature of today's universities, as well as the social, intellectual and urban role of a student residence in the heart of Toronto. There was a commitment to the excellence of the architectural project and a conviction that creative partnerships were essential in order to achieve a better downtown. In the end, among the 23 high-rises submitted for the competition, the playful HAVE A NICE DAY! project came out on top. It was the unanimous winner due to its clear visuals and explanation.

Ryerson University was established as an institute of technology in 1948, obtaining its current status in 1993. The third-largest university in Toronto, and the second largest in the downtown area, it has distinguished itself by its urban setting, in a difficult neighbourhood east of Yonge Street, as well as the inventive developmental strategies employed due to lack of land. For example, classrooms built on Dundas Square have dual use, with an alternate use as movie theatres. Thus, there is a permanent smell of popcorn that lingers in the classroom. Another example of this flexibility is the acquisition and transformation of the Maple Leaf Garden into the university's sports centre, as well as commercial spaces. This is made possible by raising center ice up a floor, freeing up the ground floor for commercial use.

Organised by the University as well as by the Design Exchange (DX) under the direction of Professor Ian MacBurnie of the Department of Architectural Science, the idea competition's objective was to renew the university residence typology as well, as that of the urban residential high-rise. Residence life participates in the overall university experience; a top-notch residence attracts both high quality students and professors, encouraging the intellectual development of its inhabitants. The contest was open to students for their experience would act as the basis for their explorations with the program, helping them conceive innovative propositions. The program reflects Toronto's ethnic diversity, the scarcity of affordable housing, as well the increasing distance between students' place of residence and the University's campus proper. The program also referred to the objectives of the master plan, largely thought out by the students and professors of the school's architecture department, as well as the university's mission itself. The master plan outlines a vertical development of the campus, with increased attention to pedestrian circulation, inclusion of green spaces, and the promotion of high-quality architectural and urban projects. The proposed location for the residence, nicknamed REZ, is at the intersection of Gerrard and Mutual streets, in the vicinity of the campus. The residence becomes an urban threshold as well as a catalyst for the growth and renewal of the eastern downtown core.

In response to the program, the competitors focused on the design of the tower itself, more specifically, spaces enabling social interaction and personal spaces. In addition to the inevitable perspective, a handful of sections, schemas and diagrams contributed to the overall understanding of the best projects. In many cases, the section is elegant and simple, open to the street on the ground floor, punctuated by collective spaces, multi-level gardens and roof terraces. These sections, as well as the countless colourful schemas and diagrams, are no doubt a testimony to the continued influence in schools of similar drawings by OMA and MVRDV. They convey a sincere desire to inhabit luminous, open spaces. The students/competitors, born in the digital age, used powerful software in order to generate hyper-real images of their projects. These images show a seductive, chic, and idealistic student life, without a trace of end-of-semester stress. There is an obvious influence of video games in this representation of space, which gives food for thought. Many proposals describe private space in a way reminiscent of games like SimCity (people included!), in a possible attempt at humour. The theme of the high-rise offering spectacular views of the city was curiously under-used in the proposals, as if it was altogether banal to live high above the city, or that the inside world offered a much more interesting view than the Torontonian panorama. The study of the presence of a high-rise within the city, at sky level or ground level, was also barely addressed.

The jury, in which I participated, quickly noticed an optimistic proposal, user-friendly with regards to its use of speech bubbles to clarify the section, enthusiastic, engaging, extremely detailed and hyper-real images, which quickly stood out from the group. The ‘HAVE A NICE DAY – A brand new way of life!' project merited the first prize for the team from Chalmers tekniska högskola (Chalmers University of Technology) in Sweden. Despite a sugarcoated view of daily student life, the impeccably presented project offered the most complete and communicative answer to the competition requirements.

Four years after the competition, it would seem that opportunistic development strategies have prevailed over architectural, landscape and urban ideals within the ambitious master plan of the university, the student ideas competition being but a distant memory to administrators. In a context where project developers have abandoned a saturated condo market for rental properties, there are an estimated 3000 rental units to be built within the next 10 years in Toronto. The University has, in this context, little interest in building a student residence on one of the rare sites it owns. The university is, however, associated with an existing student housing project located on Jarvis street in the vicinity of the university, to be completed by 2016 by MPI, plans drawn by the IBI Group. Meanwhile, a new Student Learning Centre, design by Snøhetta and Zeidler Partnership Architects, is under construction on Yonge street, location of the famous Sam the Record Man. With these two very real projects, it remains to be seen whether we will ever live life in (high) REZ…

(Translated by Konstantina Theodosopoulos)
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