Universities compete to hire the best teachers and researchers, and race to keep up with the latest lab and classroom technologies. But many, including the University of Toronto, are now paying greater attention to another important aspect of the student experience: how architecture and design can assist learning and create a stronger sense of community.
Gone are the days when students spent most of their study time alone in the library stacks. Today’s students more often engage in team projects and work collaboratively to solve real-world problems. That’s certainly true in the Faculty of Law, where students participate in moots – simulated court proceedings – that require them to work in teams and argue a case from all sides. “The more perspectives you have on a given issue, the more informed and more considered your opinion will be,” says Zachary al-Khatib, a third-year student. “Collaboration is essential to every part of the law school process.”
The Jackman Law Building, which opened last fall and has received almost $35 million in support from more than 600 alumni, gives students plenty of opportunities to meet and work together. Gian Medves, the interim chief law librarian at the Bora Laskin Law Library, notes that the library has 11 new group study rooms, all with views of the city and plenty of natural light. Because students often spend a lot of time in these rooms, they appreciate the aesthetic design elements, as well as the functional ones, says Stephanie Lewis, a second-year student. “One room has windows onto Philosopher’s Walk,” she observes. “Even if you’re there late, you can see the sun set.” Lewis also likes that several of the rooms have a whiteboard, which makes collaborating easier – especially for visual learners like her.
Creating spaces for collaboration and creativity generally means thinking at two different scales, says Jay Pooley, a lecturer at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. He calls them “retreat” and “meet.” The “retreat” scale is private and quiet, such as a study nook or carrel where students can read, research and form an argument before advancing to the “meet” scale to refine their position within a group, or debate it with others.
His view of what’s ideal for university students differs from the prevailing notion in many companies that workers are more likely to be creative and collaborate in offices “with one big open space where no one has their own desk.” This fails in some cases, says Pooley, because both universities and companies need to serve a number of different personalities and learning types – and various purposes. “Sometimes you need to have the ability to work quietly and focus, before bringing it into a larger, louder environment.”
Collaboration occurs in formal work areas, but also in informal spaces such as cafés and lounges, where students hang out, forge connections and build a sense of community. “These spaces are really important to the proper functioning of the school from a mental health perspective,” says al-Khatib. Figuring out where to put more of them in the new building, besides the large atrium, remains a priority for both students and the faculty administration, adds Lewis.
Creating truly collaborative spaces means ensuring that they are open to everyone. Alexis Archbold, the faculty’s assistant dean, Juris Doctor program, notes that the Jackman Law Building is completely wheelchair accessible, and all new classrooms are equipped with assisted listening devices. It has 12 all-gender washrooms and heated walkways near entrances to melt snow. “For me, the accessible features are the building’s real highlights,” says Lewis. “I’m excited to see the faculty integrate them in all aspects of the student experience as we settle into our new space.”
Hal Jackman (BA 1953 Victoria, LLB 1956), a former U of T chancellor and lieutenant-governor of Ontario, made an extraordinary gift of $11 million to support the Jackman Law Building. The innovative facility has generated a total of $34.5 million in support from more than 600 alumni and friends.