a university’s Riverside Inspiration

staffwritten by cathi bond

When Janna Levitt and David Warne of Toronto’s Levitt Goodman Architects first saw the raw space that they would transform into the gleaming Design at Riverside Gallery, the floor was crumbling, the old columns were in terrible shape, and the lead paint was peeling off the walls. But the sun was shining through the huge seven-foot square windows, and, as Warne says, “space is space,” so the potential
was obvious to both from the get-go.

Today, a beautiful new white-walled gallery is drawing visitors and architourists to Cambridge, Ontario. Indeed, Design at Riverside is one of the only professionally-staffed public galleries in Canada devoted to architecture and design, aside from Montreal’s venerable Canadian Centre for Architecture, and it’s beginning to make waves.

The idea for the gallery was born when the University of Waterloo’s renowned School of Architecture was in the process of moving from a cramped and drab building on the university’s main campus to a renovated century-old silk mill in downtown Galt (Cambridge is a fairly recent amalgamation of the towns of Galt, Hespeler, and Preston). The Director of the School, Rick Haldenby, wanted a gallery space in the new building, so he approached Greg Hayton, CEO of
Cambridge Libraries and Galleries, with an offer: the School would provide the space to the Galleries if they would undertake the renovations and provide professional staffwrittening. Hayton, an architecture buff, didn’t need convincing, and in November 2004, Design at Riverside opened its doors to the public.

The gallery is situated in the ground floor of the northwest wing of the School of
Architecture, across the corridor from a busy café, which together provide a public access point into the School. Levitt and Warne determined that they would take the same approach to the gallery as the one they took to the overall building renovation. “Because we were designing for architecture students,” says Warne, “we wanted to give them less. They need to learn design, so we didn’t want to give them design. We wanted to give them a blank canvas to work with so their
visions don’t always have to fight with ours.”

 

 

Less is definitely more at Design at Riverside, which has maintained an industrial feel in tribute to Galt’s glory days as a centre of the Canadian textile industry. The biggest challenge, says Warne, was the enormous windows that line the gallery’s three exterior walls. “Curators don’t exactly like lots of direct natural light,” he laughs. So he and Levitt devised a system of floating walls that stand just inside the windows on the north and south walls, providing a surface to hang architectural drawings, plans, and renderings, as well as allowing soft, indirect light to spill
over the top and bottom of the walls. At the same time, the walls’ outer surfaces create an ideal series of spaces for window display, beckoning passers-by into the gallery, and their interiors ingeniously conceal much of the electrical and duct work. A wall was introduced at the back of the space to separate the gallery from a storage room and a print studio, where Cambridge Galleries runs popular
classes. Levitt and Warne also decided to keep the original columns that run down the middle of the gallery, add a polished concrete floor, a series of portable walls, and other 21st-century necessities. They even designed a Jetsons-like mobile office-cum-supervision desk known as “the pod.”

Since the gallery’s opening, it has hosted exhibitions that include a “now and then”
look at graduates from the Waterloo School of Architecture who have become highly respected practitioners (including Brigitte Shim, Howard Sutcliffe, Martin Kohn, John Shnier, and Stephen Teeple), a survey of contemporary sustainable architecture across Canada, the photographic work of Donald McKay, the drawings of Mike Parsons, and the furniture design of Patty Johnson’s North South Project. Design at Riverside is definitely a place to watch in the months and years ahead.


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