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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

NO MEAN CITY: York University Learning Commons, by Levitt Goodman Architects

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York University Learning Commons - Ben Rahn/A-Frame

Cross-posted from No Mean City, Alex’s personal blog on architecture

Welcome to September. To kick off this academic year I want to take a second look at a fine academic project: The York Learning Commons, designed by Levitt Goodman Architects for Toronto’s York University. LGA won an invited competition for this project and the first phase is done, full of hot plum upholstery, polished woodwork and shady corners to hang out.

More and photo gallery after the jump.

I wrote about the plans back in 2010, and Levitt Goodman partner Brock James explained the challenge of a contemporary university library. It “is not so much about books as about bringing together all the student supports on campus – and giving a place for students to work together,” says James, who led the design team.

It includes the Hub, which totally transforms the 1960s atrium with a hot-red welcome desk and cool “pods” for academic counselling. Then there is the Collaboratory – for group study and hanging out (see photo at the top of this post); and the Salon, a quiet-study space decorated with two vintage nail-art murals (see photo below).

York University Learning Commons - photo by Ben Rahn/A-Frame

The project also improves the acoustics, the lighting and the atmosphere of the whole structure. The Scott Library was part of the York campus’s development in the 1960s, designed by three of Canada’s top modernist firms along with landscape architect Hideo Sasaki (history of the campus in PDF). It’s an interesting, but forbidding, building.

Toronto has many Brutalist public buildings like this – solid, formally interesting and urbanistically unfriendly. With this project, Levitt Goodman shows how they can get a new start in the 21st century.

Happy September.

Photos by Ben Rahn/A-Frame (above; first four in slideshow); Bob Gundu (others in slideshow).



  1. What a fabulous update. I went to York in the 90’s and the Scott Library was very unfriendly. I’m especially pleased to see the nail murals get some love – the school has some great art scattered around that was somehow deadened by the oppressive concrete. Brutalism is a nice place to visit, but it’s soul-crushing to live there.