When it comes to experimental, innovative or just plain unusual workplaces, media companies lead the way. While the majority of us are holed up in bland uninspiring offices where the main concerns don’t stretch further than the heating working or whether there is an ample supply of printer paper, media types are more demanding. Perhaps it’s the industry’s youthful demographic or the fact that people enjoy their jobs rather than endure them; whatever the reason, if there’s a fussball table or slide in the building you can lay money on it not being a trust-fund HQ.
True to form, these off-the-wall features pop up in Corus Entertainment’s new headquarters in Toronto. Corus is one of Canada’s largest media companies, encompassing around 50 radio, television and other brands, and until a few years ago, it sprawled over 11 locations mainly in the city’s hip Liberty Village district. The company board decided that more coherence was needed, drafting in fellow Torontonians Quadrangle Architects to unravel the complicated knot.
After some debate, Corus opted to move everyone to a new building rather than improve each existing outpost. The timing could not have been better. The new building, a speculative office by Diamond Schmitt Architects, was pencilled in to occupy a prime spot at the heart of the city’s new waterfront development, but it had yet to make the leap from drawing board to three-dimensional object. This presented an opportunity to customise the original design to suit Corus’s needs. “We worked with the base-build architect to make some pretty fundamental changes, particularly on the ground floor,” says Quadrangle’s Caroline Robbie. “One of the conditions of the lease was to enrich the public realm so we changed the back quarter of the building so that all the radio stations face a brand-new park. The public can stick their nose right up to the glass, and there are speakers that project out into the public space.” The willingness to engage with the city is a carry over from the old days when radio station The Edge’s street-level studios would close off Yonge Street and hold impromptu gigs. Quadrangle recreated this by including a ground-floor performance space so the kids can rock out happily without blocking traffic.
Diamond Schmitt’s building was H-shaped with a soaring central atrium flanked by office space. The move here brought natural light to a workforce accustomed to working in dark soundproofed boxes, but it resulted in a great deal of wasted space. To remedy this, Quadrangle built a three-storey block in the middle of the void and hoyed in a couple of TV stations. Deploying a variety of furniture, including oversized Luxo lamps and Vitra’s Alcove sofas, the practice transformed the structure’s roof into a media lounge where staff exchange ideason computer screens, talk privately or play foosball. Connecting this area to the canteen-type space below is a spiralling white slide, which provides a faster alternative to the rear staircase. Unlike its precedent at Red Bull’s London offices, which fell victim to ’elf and safety the day after its inauguration, Corus’s slide is still propelling gleeful staff. “It is one of the most popular features. They particularly like it because it was one of things that said ‘this is a fun company’ and Corus is about fun,” says Robbie.
Weaving around the slide is a white ribbon-like structure, which begins life as a steel bench at the TV block’s entrance, swoops through the reception and terminates in the communal space. Made from fabric stretched over an aluminium frame, its wavy form makes reference to the waterfront location. Glass is the dominant material throughout, so to soften things up a little Quadrangle clad the ground floor interior walls in wood reclaimed from a sunken 1910 ferry dock.
With so many companies under one roof, the main challenge facing Quadrangle was to ensure individual identities were not lost in the move to an open-plan layout. The practice picked 21 of Corus’s 50-plus companies and designed special glazed meeting rooms to represent each brand. This ranged from drawing out a strong colour in the logo to installing industrial lamps for the edgier music stations. In some cases this has produced pretty exuberant spaces. YTV’s refulgent collision of deep blue and dazzling yellow, for example, is almost overwhelming. Corus is clearly not a company that needs zen-like minimalism to concentrate.
At times the design went beyond colour codes, furnishings and light fixtures, as Robbie explains: “One room in particular for me was very important because the radio station was the one I had listened to all throughout my teens and twenties when there was a really great punk scene in Toronto. I had collected all of the posters from the late 70s and early 80s and so I put together a wallpaper of these posters, which they loved.”
Quadrangle exposed the ductwork and other mechanics throughout the workspaces, acknowledging the company’s beginnings in Liberty Village’s brick-and-beam buildings. The open-plan format is broken down by a myriad of meeting rooms (150, Robbie reckons) and staff were given a budget to kit out their workstations. The third and fourth floors house the children’s and women’s brands respectively, and are the most densely populated, while execs, human resources and bean counters reside on the sixth floor. On the eight floor is an auditorium for private screenings and an outdoor terrace. Quadrangle is currently fitting out the seventh floor. Despite the layering there are still areas where departments spill into each other Robbie says: “The idea was that people did see each other – people who may not have ever seen each other before now run into each other all the time.”
Robbie recounts how, shortly after they moved in, a black Moooi pig began popping up in unexpected locations. “There is kind of a competition to see who can put it in the weirdest place.” Corus, it seems, is embracing its colourful new home with quirky enthusiasm.
Oh Canada, so sensible and pragmatic, you shame us with your functional healthcare for all, low government debt and tightly regulated banking system. Now, unsurprisingly, we can also take heed from your best office spaces. Energy efficiency. Tick. Recycled materials. Tick. Art gallery, natural light, democratic spatial organisation. Tick, tick, tick. Is there no end to it?
In the new Toronto hub of Stantec, an international consultancy specialising in engineering, architecture, interior design and infrastructure (among other things), it seems not. Three years ago, the firm decided that it had to consolidate its architecture and engineering arms into one space. As project architect Dathe Wong explains, it didn’t make sense for the two groups (totalling 180 people) to work separately across the city in three different offices, as had been the case before. “We’ve been selling the idea of an integrated team to our clients – and our projects turn out better when we manage to work closer together. That idea naturally led to us moving to a new space,” he says. “It was about accommodating workspace but it was also meant to be a flagship Canadian office for Stantec. We wanted to make sure that we set certain targets for ourselves.” There was debate about how to go about it – whether the answer was to design a new building, take on an old one, or have a location outside of the city. “We quickly decided that being downtown was absolutely critical. Toronto has a very vibrant urban core and we definitely wanted to be part of it,” says Wong. “For larger organisations like ourselves, there is a lot of pressure to move away from the city – then people can drive in and out. You have cheaper rent and larger office space. We were trying to push away from that mentality,” he explains.
It was finally decided that Stantec should set up shop in a listed, disused sock factory in the western part of the city, near the garment district and the waterfront (manufacturing stopped in the 1980s). The building’s shell is striking – three storeys of the original brick and timber structure from the 1890s interlaced with a five-storey concrete addition from the 1930s. Stantec now occupies the bottom two floors of both parts of the building. A big chunk of the structural work was to carve out a two-storey void in the middle of the building and add new staircase. “That was key to linking our disciplines, linking our floors – making sure we didn’t use the elevator as a default and that we circulated through the building,” Wong says.
Both floors have been broken up into zones, defined by the void and the new slatted timber screens of reclaimed Ontario pine (which, incredibly, has spent the past 200 years buried under landfill at the water’s edge). The screens are obviously a nod to the original internal features, but it also warms up the office in a way that many restored industrial buildings fail to do. The ‘blue zone’, or public space, holds the reception, meeting rooms (six on the ground floor), a café and an architectural library. The ‘green zone’ is for services – printer rooms, washrooms and showers – while the studio zone is for workstations, which get plenty of natural light. The overall idea was to respect the industrial heritage by preserving as much of the original timber structure as possible (floors, ceilings, columns) while adapting to Stantec’s needs. As Wong explains, “Conceptually, we had this historic layer, which is the timber structure. And then we have our contemporary layer on top of that.”
This idea of layers is a theme that has been accentuated by a raised-floor system, slices of which are visible through glass fascias in the void. When construction started, there were no services, only a few rooftop units dropping down a central core and some sprinkler lines for the manufacturing space – leaving the architects free to devise all of their own lighting and air distribution. “A raised-floor system hasn’t been used in a retrofit in an older building like this, so we had to work our way through that,” Wong adds. “We loved that wood ceiling – it’s beautiful – so we wanted to make sure it was preserved. The last thing we wanted to do was to stick another layer over it for services. So the idea of the raised floor was an architectural and engineering solution, where I said, please, let’s either not touch the ceiling, or only have minimal ductwork, and the engineers said well, why don’t we go under the floor? It gave us great flexibility, it preserved the wood ceiling and it is low energy.”
Where the original floors haven’t been preserved, bare concrete slabs were installed to continue with the raw, industrial feeling of the space. For the same reason, unfinished steel fittings were used in the void and on the staircase. Stantec is quite keen that the building should have a positive effect on the community. The old cargo entrance has been donated back to the city as a gallery for local artists. Due to fewer parking spaces, Stantec is helping staff with subsidised transport passes. Plus, says Wong, they wanted to think beyond their own stay here. “We’ve come into the building, we’ve adapted it for our purposes, but we’re hoping that when the space is no longer suitable for us, some other generation can use it. To us, that is the greenest approach.”But the key success here has been the bringing together of Stantec’s different segments to work in a new way. “I think it’s a way of changing the approach of the entire industry,” Wong concludes. “Typically, we’re very compartmentalised in our various disciplines. Architects don’t start anything until infrastructure is in place; engineering typically doesn’t start until an architect has a proposal and floor plans. We’re trying to change that.”