York University has a powerfully engaged student body. The university’s new student centre is a manifestation of that engagement. It was designed and built for York’s incredibly diverse student body; its 55,0000 students represent nearly every ethnicity, culture, nationality, religion, identity and ability. The building is a physical presence reflecting a resonant collective voice. It’s a piece of activist architecture.
In need of more student space, in 2013, the student body voted in a special referendum to build a second student centre. Close to 10,000 student votes were cast — the highest voter turnout in the history of Canadian post-secondary institutions — with approximately 90 percent voting in favor.
The design process was highly engaged, with more than 11,000 students participating through multiple rounds of digital, hands-on and personal investigation to help the design team generate a functional program and design that provided much-needed space for study, studios, club offices, meetings and multi-faith prayer.
The architecture of the new student centre was generated through the intersection of five design drivers: HIVE/ representing the multiplicity of the individual and collective experiences of students; FULCRUM/ responding to the centrality of the site; ICON/ amplifying the potential for the building to express student identity; LENS/ articulating the dynamic connectivity between the building and the broader context of campus, city and world; and FLUX/ which challenges the architecture to be infinitely responsive to change. Investigated separately through drawing and modeling, each of these drivers provoked a diagrammatic exploration that examined how architecture can merge student experience with the many social, cultural and physical realms within which the building must operate.
Located at the north end of an expansive campus green, the building sits at a critical intersection where an infinite array of student interactions play out. It celebrates the site’s prominence as a sculptural object, a gateway that is transparent and open, a place of debate, advocacy and engagement. The form meaningfully reflects the major program elements while relating to and respecting the historical buildings on campus. Outdoor and interior experiences converge via a sculptural stair that starts outside, weaving through the landscape and then each level inside — culminating on the fourth floor, which is dedicated to multi-faith prayer space. Here, the floor cantilevers out over those below and features dramatic uses of wood and glass to create a destination for spiritual reflection.
The building importantly functions as a lifeline for students battling with issues such as food insecurity and mental wellness. Centres for food support, wellness and social services are easily accessible from the major, powerful spaces of gathering in a building designed with an understanding of crime prevention with clear sightlines, transparency, and progressive lighting to increase safety for all.
The building has achieved LEED Gold certification.