The U of A's University Commons will become a forward-thinking gathering space
By Matthew Stepanic | January 27, 2023
Back in the late aughts when I was still a fledgling English student, I remember the University of Alberta’s Dentistry/Pharmacy Centre — one of the most stunning buildings on the campus — mostly served me, sadly, as a warm corridor when travelling between the Humanities Centre and the Students’ Union Building. I had two classes that felt randomly inserted into the building (an introductory Psych course and a Comp Lit course all about pop culture), so I wasn’t sure of the building’s role in the larger university community. Turns out the U of A wasn’t sure, either.
Many organizations live by the “out with the old and in with the new” mantra, but a university has to build differently. When decision makers at the U of A recognized that the iconic Dent/Pharm was being under-utilized, they knew they had to revitalize the building while maintaining its special character and history on campus. With the help of a $249-million investment from the Government of Alberta, the 404,000 sq. ft. building — now University Commons, constructed by Clark Builders — is in the final stage of reconnecting the heart of the north campus to the rest of the university.
Kelly Hopkin is manager campus planning and architecture at the U of A and is one of the leads on this six-year retrofit. When he joined the university team just over a decade ago, the now-retired architect Ben Louie inspired him by saying, “Imagine thinking of something for a 100 years’ time, or the life of a tree.”
That scope of time and history involved made him a little nervous about starting this project, as he explains: “It has to follow a 100-year path for the university, a timeless path for Indigenous communities, and then you have the future in the next hundred years — how is that going to work?”
First completed in September 1922 and then known as the U of A Medical Building (students called it “The Med”), the edifice was designed by the university’s original architect, Percy Nobbs. Nobbs’s successful philosophy in designing university campuses was to always build for change and growth, and Hopkin says the team has been following his wisdom. “We wanted to make [University Commons] as flexible as possible because, if we learned anything from this building over 100 years, this building will change 20 times.”
Hopkin explains the original building has many unique features because much of it was designed during the First World War, but it was completed in a post-war era. On other campus buildings, such as the North Power Plant, Hopkin notes, “You’ll see acorns and there’s all this iconography that’s specific to that style of architecture. If you look on [University Commons], you’ll see these stone plaques that are ready to be carved or receive that kind of symbology. And they were left blank.”
The building maintains the campus’s history, as it played a role in many historical events. “This building served as a morgue for Spanish flu victims,” Hopkin shares. “Within the atrium, you can see where the entry for that morgue used to be. It’s been bricked in, but it still exists.” As with other university buildings — such as the Universiade Pavilion (lovingly known as the Butterdome) that served as an emergency backup facility during the peak of the COVID pandemic — this building has been called on to support government and other organizations, and will be ready to do so in the future.
The team made sure to identify important character spaces and features of the 1922 building, and retain and enhance as much as possible using adaptive re-use typology. “You keep all of the good, the character, the what’s working and what supports the anticipated use of the building,” says Hopkin. “So we took that old Beaux-Arts academic building and we tied it to a modern, six-storey tower on the other side.” In the Reading Room above the entry lobby, much of the plasterwork that features beautiful details of fruits and flowers was destroyed by technicians running cables through the ceiling. Craftsmen restored the plasterwork using — aptly — dental moulds to recreate the original shapes.
The peskiest and slowest stage of the process was potentially decommissioning the SLOWPOKE (Safe Low-Power Kritical Experiment) nuclear reactor on the third floor. Commissioned in 1977 to analyze minerals and produce neutrons of radionuclide for diagnosing tumours, the U of A team worked step by step with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to deliver the fissile materials to the United States for safe storage, processing, and eventual disposal.
Despite this, Hopkin refers to the first stage of the re-build — which involved design work from GEC Architecture — as a “dream.” It included the restoration of the central area, the demolition of older wings on the north side, and the buildout of the shell of the new structure of the building. The retrofit will meet Silver LEED Standards, but Hopkin shares that it’s currently in Gold territory.
The former building was highly inaccessible, so Hopkin and his team are improving that immensely with the re-design. “We added a couple of ramps down to the lower level on either side of that main stair to make it accessible from the south side,” Hopkin explains. They also added several access points throughout the building, with a plan to eventually connect it to the Rutherford Library via pedway. “While you’re within, you can, in most places, see right through the building. So while it’s a big building, you’re still able to see lots of daylight and you can orient yourself all the time.”
The geometry that you see in the glass on the outside of the building will continue throughout the interior, with wood-trellis screens used in unique ways. “It brings that organic feel to it, so that you get this dappled sunlight into these meeting areas,” Hopkin explains. “It feels like you’re in the park without putting a tree in there.”
In the second phase, the U of A is working with Zeidler Architecture. “We’ve designed the top three floors, and now we’re going to finish up the rest of the middle two, and then we’ll do two and one last,” says Hopkin. “We have three fit-out packages over the next two years, which gets us to that fall 2024 date.”
Moving far beyond its basic role as the warm hallway I remember, the new vision for University Commons, Hopkin shares, involves three principles: “We call it the new front door of the university, we call it a crossroads for the university because of the interconnected accessibility it will have…. And we call it a stage.” On top of providing enhanced student services, modern labs, academic offices and collaborative spaces for meeting, the build-ing will exist as a third space for gathering, announcements and ceremonies.
Hopkin hopes that the building will exist as a third space for students, where the true student experience of building relationships, collaborating, and developing community can happen. With University Commons, he says, “we’re trying to say, if you have an asset like that, keep it, invest in it, retain it, and make sure that it’s usable for people for the next hundred years.”