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October 24, 2002 Architects argue for urban flair in new School of Business



(click on photos to enlarge)

Above: An interior view of the double-height atriums which vertically link the teaching levels. Below: A view of the projected building at the corner of Guy St. and de Maisonneuve Blvd. from Norman Bethune Park.

Drawings courtesy of KPMB / FSA Architects in joint venture.

by Barbara Black

Members of the John Molson School of Business met with designers to discuss their new home, described by the architects as “a loft with a corporate tone.”

The meeting, held Oct. 18 in the De Sève Cinema, was one of a series held to give the faculty, staff and students a chance to comment on the design during the conceptual phase.

The new School will be the third of Concordia’s three new buildings. Jacob Fichten, of Montreal-based FSA, partners in the design consortium, said that construction of the massive building on Guy St. between Ste. Catherine St. and de Maisonneuve Blvd. will likely start late in 2003 and be completed towards the end of 2005.

Bruce Kuwabara and Marianne McKenna, of the Toronto architects KPMB, emphasized the qualities of Montreal and of Concordia that they hope to see reflected in the new building – flair, urban edginess, cosmopolitanism. While they had seen many well-known business schools across North America over the summer on exploratory trips led by Dean Jerry Tomberlin, Concordia’s site was the only one that called for a high-rise, and they wanted to make this a virtue, not a restriction.

The architects said their corporate clients, including banks and airlines, are trying to lose their severe institutional look, and are asking for interiors that are more like the gracious living-rooms of the hospitality industry. “Banks want to become lighter,” Kuwabara said, “more relaxed, more creative.”

He admitted that the original design for the School had already been compromised. The architects had recommended open office space because an open office works so well for them at KPMB, but the faculty members wanted closed offices for privacy. Most of these offices will be around the perimeter of the building, with great views of the city.

When one professor predicted that having five departments on only three floors would lead to internal friction, Tomberlin said that the design was specifically aimed at countering the silo effect of departmental isolation, a complaint of some university business schools. The architects explained at some length their effort to create a vertical community, with atriums around stairwells and plenty of common space to bring people together.

“In an age of e-mail, we want to be able to see people,” Kuwabara said. “Marshall McLuhan said that when one technology replaces another, the other becomes an art form.” Face-to-face interaction is more precious now than ever.

Several in the audience spoke up for environmentally friendly features. Told that the building would include a small, 55-space indoor parking garage, Professor Michèle Paulin asked, “Why have a parking lot at all? Why not make it a swimming pool, which is what everybody wanted? After all, the building is connected to the Métro.” She would have liked escalators, lights and water utilities that shut down when they weren’t being used.

Professor Maureen Gowing said that she would prefer autonomous features, such as operable windows, i.e. windows that open and shut, because doing research late at night when the ventilation is turned down is unhealthy and unpleasant.

That would have been the architects’ preference, too, and their original design included “fresh-air corridors” on every floor, although Kuwabara added that this kind of design element puts the onus on the users to manage the facilities appropriately. The new visual arts building will have windows that open, but the adjoining, and much larger, engineering building will not.

Kuwabara also said that KPMB is designing the Canadian embassy in Berlin, and he is struck by the environmental regulations and personal preferences in Europe. Sustainability is woven into building codes in Germany and has become part of the culture, with office workers expecting to control their own immediate environment rather than having it sealed and automated.

The new building’s design reflects that of the massive engineering/visual arts complex now going up on Guy and Ste. Catherine Sts., and like it, will have a cantilevered “hat” on the top and a wide copper slash down the side. The main entrance will be on the corner of de Maisonneuve and Guy, with “Spanish Steps” (a reference to the famously wide steps in Rome) to the metro providing a below-ground concourse on what the architects called “virtual ground.”

The four-storey base of the building will not be quite as public as that of the engineering building across the street, which will have retail spaces as well as the bus stops and heavy pedestrian traffic it has now, but it will have cafes.

Above this base are the teaching floors. Tomberlin said teaching space was increased in recent modifications by the School’s planning team. Touring state-of-the-art business schools across the continent had opened their eyes to requirements and possibilities, and the new specifications are more generous than provincial norms require. There will be a large amphitheatre, several horseshoe-shaped teaching theatres of 60 seats, and a number of smaller classrooms.

Above the teaching floors are two floors of executive offices, which include computer labs and case rooms. An innovation developed by the architects is two “floating boxes,” rooms that hang inside the building’s core, are more than single storey in height, and can be used for presentations.

The architects said they encourage members of the School to define the identity they want to see reflected in the look of the new building, but they suggested looking to the city around them for inspiration.