Sharp Centre for Design

Sharp Centre for Design in Toronto, Ontario, Canada by Will Alsop, 2004

Approaching the Sharp Centre for Design at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) it's difficult to not feel shock at the sight of a black and white box with colored stilts. The shock gives way to the now proverbial awe as one senses the underside of the two-story object raised about eight stories above the street. But has Will Alsop (with local architect Robie Young + Wright Architects) created something that will stand the test of time, or a goofy one- or two-liner?

Although shocking and daring, the building's design is relatively simple and straightforward. A two-story box, housing studios and offices, is raised above a triple-height entry that reuses an old, yet fairly nondescript, existing building. The painted steel, tapered-tube structure leans out to accommodate this lower part, the concrete core and a service incline the only other parts of the composition. So the design is made up of five parts, though their relationship to each other and the norm is what gives the building its shock value.

According to the architect, the design was generated by the desire to create an icon for a 125-year-old institution that contributes greatly to Canada's creative industry, as well as a consideration for the building's neighbors, preserving views to a park west of the Centre. Even without the Tetris-like pattern painted onto the corrugated metal cladding or the brightly-colored steel and lipstick-red service incline (most likely exit stairs and building systems), the building is impressive. The feeling of walking under the floating "tabletop" is uncomparable. Its coloring, if anything, detracts from this effect, creating an un-needed diversion from the structural bravado already achieved.

The early renderings indicate that the entry sequence would be an extension of the exterior's impact. Instead the reality is much more subdued (images below), the colored glass fading away and the monochrome interior playing up the core's mass over any impact from a use of color.

Upstairs, the studios and offices are relatively sedate, though randomly sized and located window openings with colored jambs, heads and sills help to spice things up. In some areas the structural reality comes through, as the two-story-high truss members protrude into different spaces. Unfortunately once inside the "tabletop", the sense of being raised above the street and surroundings isn't directly perceived. Regardless, one's mind is aware of the unnatural situation, and some views to the street do create a sense of vertigo through the indirect perception of the stilts.

As mentioned earlier, Alsop and OCAD tried to create an icon while being sensitive to the surroundings. An indirect consequence of the final design is a series of unobstructed views in all directions, particularly towards downtown Toronto, to the south. So they have succeeded in their intentions, though hopefully the shock does not subside into boredom and kitsch. But since the painted exterior will require extra coats in the future, perhaps it can be a vehicle for students to update the building's public face in years to come.