Study area.
Courtesy Aaron Betsky Study area.

We spend more and more of our time hanging out. While we do that, we are focused on our phones, tablets, laptops, and computers. A whole new space usage has arisen without a clear precedent: The place to be in public, connected to others, perhaps while doing something like eating or waiting for a plane, maybe even meeting and discussing something, but basically just places for browsing electronic devices. The laboratory for such spaces, which I think will take over more and more of our shared environments, are universities, where administrations are erecting buildings that they sometimes call student centers, sometimes libraries, and sometimes simply hubs. Their main function is to give students a place to combine the socializing and networking, which is as much the reason for college as learning, a place.

Courtesy Aaron Betsky Entrance.

Ryerson University's Student Learning Center, Toronto.
Courtesy Aaron Betsky Ryerson University's Student Learning Center, Toronto.

At Ryerson University, an urban campus focused on engineering in downtown Toronto, the designers from Snøhetta have created the most unabashed version of such container for socialized surfing. It is a box that contains eight floors of concrete loft space, each with a different name and color, and some with some remarkable spaces, but all dedicated to a combination of studying, discussing, socializing, and browsing. A week after the building (unofficially) opened, students had occupied every desk, every study room, and every nook. They have made the Learning Center their own.

The Center sits between Ryerson’s library, a bunker with little to distinguish or recommend it, and the Yonge Street, one of Toronto’s main commercial arteries. Snøhetta was careful to line the ground floor with commercial spaces, and then lifted the building up at one corner to invite you up along broad stairs to a double-height piano nobile that connects directly to the library. A Starbucks anchors this combination of commercial and institutional space.

As you rise up through the building, the first three floors on centralized stairs, the remaining ones on color-coded fire stairs or deliberately few elevators (to encourage walking), you encounter bare concrete environments whose corners are open to views and gathering, while bookable classrooms and meeting spaces occupy the center in a diagonal arrangement, turning most of the area into a maze. The glass fronts of the rooms on one floor are orange, and on another green, creating a distinct atmosphere for each of the Center’s horizontal slices. Lighting in the rooms balances out the glass color so as to make the effect one you only get when passing through.

The Beach.
Courtesy Aaron Betsky The Beach.

On the sixth floor, the floor opens up into a fan-shaped auditorium facing the street. Called the Beach, it brings drama and openness to this layer cake of loft spaces. Students lounge on the steps and ramps, drag beanbags together to talk, and actually make use of the whiteboards the University scattered throughout the space. Wandering through the Beach, you are never quite sure whether a knot of kids is a study group, a lecture section with a T.A., or just some friends combining studying, Facebook chats, and real time interaction.

Small conference room.
Courtesy Aaron Betsky Small conference room.

Craig Dykers, AIA, the Snøhetta founding partner responsible for the project, is quick to point out the features or oddities the buildings sports: the front’s lift and tuck, a façade pattern of fritted glass that abstracts the surrounding high-rises while creating intricate shadow plays, the blue metal ceiling that wraps from inside to out, and canted columns that open up the larger spaces. They are perfectly nice—playful, elegant, expressive of structure and site—but it is the essential loftiness of the space and its ability to accommodate the students’ voracious need for the peculiar new space of hanging out that makes the design so successful. The architecture becomes a way to connect these spaces to both the outside and the inner-campus world and their resources, to give identity to both the hanging out and the institution that encourages it, and to differentiate the space enough that students can both find spots with their favorite qualities and each other. Some people wonder we still need traditional university and its expensive places for physical gathering and learning. The Ryerson Student Center makes a case for the need for such a facility, and shows how to let students make monuments their own.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.