Between 1948 and 1957, the city of Toronto expropriated and leveled 69 acres of its Victorian streetscape. The Regent Park project, designed to improve what was thought to be a working-class “slum,” replaced the buildings with public housing, set apart from the city on superblocks that obstructed human and motor traffic. Predictably, it didn't end well. Within a generation, the project's design was seen as misguided, and the area was plagued by crime. Over the past decade, the city and its public housing agency have been implementing a comprehensive rebuilding program to turn the area into a mixed-income, mixed-use residential neighborhood for 12,000 people. The scale of the project is impressive, and so is the architectural quality of its first major public building, the Regent Park Aquatic Centre, by MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects (MJMA).
Located in the middle of the district, the new facility is dramatic in its materials and massing. The building balances a dark, brooding quality—due to its angular form and a rippling skin of charcoal zinc panels–with extensive glazing.
Visitors approach the 28,000-square-foot structure from the south, where the main entrance faces a major thoroughfare. The juxtaposition of materials is most apparent at this point: half of the facade is dark and closed, and the other half is transparent, open to a large park (under construction) and the street. “The idea was that the building becomes a pavilion on the park,” says David Miller, partner in charge for the project at MJMA. “It made sense to orient it that way, so you have a large body of water along the edge of the green.”
Inside, a lap pool and a family leisure pool fill the main volume, bordered by an expansive grid of aluminum-framed windows and sliding doors leading to an outdoor terrace. Overhead, the pool is capped with an angular, folded ceiling of cedar slats and what Miller calls “the dorsal fin”: an elongated central skylight that cleaves the ceiling longitudinally, bringing an abundance of daylight into the building's core. A green roof, clearly visible from the surrounding residential buildings, is planted with drought-resistant species, in keeping with Toronto's policy requiring such construction on all new buildings larger than about 22,000 square feet.
“The project benefits from being only a pool,” Miller says. MJMA is known for athletic and community centers with various programs, some of which demand large blank walls. Not so here. Instead, the building has two clear axes of visibility. One extends north–south from the street through the lobby, the pool, and beyond to what will eventually be a bosquet of trees. The other extends east–west, across the lobby and the pool—right through its adjacent glass-enclosed locker area, comprising rows of family changing rooms separated by open aisles with views to the street. The result of thoughtful community planning, this arrangement not only maintains transparency (and uses space efficiently), it enables multi-gender groups to dress together in private white-tile cubicles rather than being allocated to segregated men's and women's areas—a godsend for parents and caregivers.
The aquatic center is in high demand already—both from the densely populated Regent Park area, which includes many people who are new to Canada, and from neighboring communities. According to the facility's manager, over 1,200 people use it on a busy day. According to Miller, the clients gave the architects freedom of expression, and they ran with it. “With housing or a library, you meet certain expectations about what the building should look like,” he says. “But we've found nobody really knows what a recreation center should be. Here, there was surprisingly little opposition. People accepted the building quite readily.”
The Globe and Mail,
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