Saturday, September 20, 2014
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TRU law school gets fine new digs

Written by Mallory Hendry

Thompson Rivers University’s law school opened it’s doors almost three years ago but until now has not had a building designed for its needs. Now it does.


Using nature and First Nations heritage as inspiration, Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects sought to build TRU’s identity into the physical structure of the law school building. Located in Kamloops, B.C., on the traditional territory of the Secwepemc peoples, it is important to the culture of the school to keep close ties to the native community.

“Thompson Rivers University has a mandate to engage with First Nations culture both in their academic programming and their student body, but beyond that we feel every building we design has a social responsibility to understand and acknowledge the local context — both physical and cultural,” explains Walton Chan, an associate at Diamond Schmitt. “Given the importance of the landscape, particularly the mountains, to the local Secwepemc people, it was appropriate to pay homage to these distinctive features.”

An existing campus building from the ’70s, known as Old Main, was given a $20.2-million facelift to reflect Thompson Rivers’ identity. A state-of-the-art, two-storey, 45,000-square-foot addition provides more learning space for students. It offers an impressive view and the design is intended to let in lots of natural light.

The design of the addition, says Chan, arose at least in part “out of necessity.”

“We had to contend with a long, low two-storey structure that was interrupted in the middle with a four-storey mechanical penthouse,” he explains.

“We wanted the addition to feel like one unified piece, not two separate wings, and the spectacular setting of the TRU campus gave us the inspiration. Kamloops is surrounded by rolling mountains, especially Mount Peter and Mount Paul that are sacred to the local First Nations bands. This landscape surrounding the city suggested a flowing roofline that solved our design problem, a solution reaffirmed by seeing the painting Mount Paul by the Group of Seven’s A.Y. Jackson in the Kamloops Art Gallery.”

TRU law dean Anne Pappas agrees. “It’s a unique setting . . . and now the law school mirrors that,” explains Pappas. “It’s not only looking like the topography but it also has a flare and a sense of the local space.”

Beyond being aesthetically pleasing, there is a studious purpose behind the natural wood, high-ceilinged trappings, and “other references to indigenous culture, such as curving bands on the new cladding over the existing lower two floors which invoke First Nations basket-weaving traditions,” says Chan.

“It’s bringing law into a space that’s light, bright, and with the tall ceilings that allow people to think of infinite possibilities,” says Pappas. “It’s not closed in and dark and hemmed in, it’s bright and light and airy to facilitate thinking bigger, better, grander. Space has a phenomenal impact on people’s psyche.”

Chan agrees. “Abundant natural light and views make the new law school an appealing place to work for both students and staff. We wanted to maximize the potential of the building’s location,” he says.

“We know law students spend long stretches of time in the library, so the reading room is conducive to this with a soaring ceiling, large windows, and a mix of study tables and informal soft seating.”

Pappas says the library definitely serves its purpose as an inviting atmosphere – students report they could spend 30 hours studying, but it doesn’t feel like much time has passed.

Law school denizens realized the impact of space and light only when the new digs put their last building to shame. Two or three people were sharing offices, the dean says. Now she calls the accommodations “spectacular.”

Students have their own club space, office space, executive space, and lockers. It makes them feel like a collective, says Pappas.

Intimate classrooms were engineered specifically for law school discussions, which means they include well-placed microphones for ease of videoconferencing and specialized acoustics, which Chan and the rest of the architects at Diamond Schmitt view as of particular importance.

“Room acoustics are an important but often overlooked factor in how we use and perceive spaces,” says Chan.

There is a main double-height atrium, outfitted with acoustic panels in the walls and ceiling to absorb sound, so even when it’s full, students can hear and communicate well. The tiered lecture rooms are also designed with conversation in mind, making the “two-way discourse associated with a seminar-based pedagogy” easier and “supporting cross-discussions between students and instructors,” says Chan.

“The technology is awesome,” Pappas sums up.

While Diamond Schmitt “eschews” any one particular style, the architects always aim to provide “clean, ordered, uncluttered architecture that supports the activities of the building’s occupants.”

“Good design makes the building occupants feel valued, and elevates their activities, in this case the pursuit of learning,” says Chan. “The social dimension of a building is a very important consideration, how the configuration of spaces and views contribute to its active relationship with its surrounding streets and to the interaction of the people within.”  

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