Urbane renewal at Central City

September 08, 2006, volume 37, no. 1

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As a focal point for an urban renaissance,architect Bing Thom's Central City complex is a standout, soaring 23 stories above Whalley's low-key streetscape. As home to the Lower Mainland's newest university campus, it is a knockout, part of Simon Fraser University's 40-year architectural legacy.

When the doors to SFU Surrey's new home open officially on Sept. 8, students, faculty, and staff will welcome the generous wash of light over open, airy common spaces, the state-of-the-art technology, and the clearly-defined pathways to academic resources such as the library, labs, theatres, and classrooms. The new digs are a dramatic departure from the dark, makeshift warren of rooms and cubicles carved out of a former department store that housed the emergent campus for more than four years.

But Thom hopes that more than the gloss of glass and steel will inspire new generations of students. "With young students, it's important to give them a sense of the future," he says, "but they should never lose sight that they're also part of nature, and part of a longer tradition."

There's no denying that this is a building solidly rooted in the new millennium. Its high-tech exterior is clad in glass, with random panels of zinc, titanium, and blackened stainless steel. But the massive wooden posts that mark the main entry, opposite the Surrey Centre SkyTrain station, hint strongly at a lumber-rich past, while the dramatic timber trusses that span the 150 metre-long galleria roof conjure images of a post and beam longhouse. These are no ordinary trees, though, and no old-growth forests were sacrificed for mere aesthetics. Instead, the timber structures are miracles of modern engineering, composed of waste wood, combined with steel to take advantage of the best properties of both materials.

Just as Simon Fraser University's original Burnaby campus was born into an era marked by radical new ideas of education and social change, so the Surrey campus marks a radical departure from the traditional view of a university as an institution insulated from the day-to-day life of the community. This campus is no ivory tower. It has been, literally, grafted onto an active retail centre, and attached to a fully-occupied office complex. The open, third-floor galleria is as much a public forum as it is a setting for academic services. The walkways that lead to classes and labs are fully visible from the shopping centre, just as the marketplace activity is to the university community.

From the beginning, the campus was conceived as a catalyst for a new town centre for Surrey. The sweeping plaza that introduces the complex is already a busy gathering space for students, shoppers, office workers, and pedestrians. How those disparate communities will meet and mesh over the years remains to be seen. What is clearly evident, though, is that Bing Thom's landmark is an aesthetic success, gathering an international bouquet of awards and accolades that can only bode well for the new university.

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