James Stewart Centre
Kuwabara Payne McKenna
Blumberg Architects (Toronto, ON)
This project required the adaptive re-use of Hamilton Hall, built in 1929 and one of the oldest buildings on the McMaster University campus, into a centre for excellence in mathematics. The objective was to strengthen the identity of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in a campus traditionally noted for its medicine programs, and to create a facility that recognizes the interactive nature of mathematics with spaces that promote team-based study and research.
Originally designed to house the Sciences department, Hamilton Hall was spatially alienated from its original function after being reconfigured into a student centre in the 1960s. James Stewart, a mathematician and committed alumnus of the university, donated funds to transform the interior for the specific teaching and research requirements of mathematicians, thereby reverting the building - given that mathematics is known as “the original science” - to its original purpose.
The design concept imposed a highly abstract and modern interior onto the historic Collegiate Gothic exterior. The complete demolition of the dark, labyrinthine interior exposed the concrete post-and-beam construction. A new insulated envelope was inserted to preserve the original stone cladding of the exterior wall and the oriole windows. Portions of the floor slabs were removed to create an architectural void that unifies the space vertically and horizontally. The void, articulated in blue glass, visually connects the building's four storeys. Skylight openings at its east and west limits allow natural light to be drawn deep into the interior spaces. As a visual incision, the void is occupied by light and space and it functions as a tangible surface and volume, the objective correlative of the reception and distribution of ideas.
The project transformed a building that appears traditionally collegiate into a building that embodies the spirit of collegiality. Calm, reflective spaces are juxtaposed with interactive zones to be conducive to focusing and sharing mathematical thought. Individual faculty offices and graduate study areas are located along the building's perimeter to accommodate the mathematicians' need for quiet space to pursue individual research. The existing stone-framed Gothic windows are the nuclei around which each office is organized. The offices are unified under a continuous ceiling plate that allows the existing concrete beams and slab to define the full spatial extent. Horizontal glass slots on office fronts draw light into hallways from the perimeter openings. In contrast to the hermetic quality of the offices, the public corridors are oversized and furnished with tables and benches to encourage group study and collaborative thinking. Slate blackboards for recording mathematical notations, yet susceptible to less scientific graffiti, are woven through the office and corridor spaces.
The James Stewart Centre for Mathematics is the first project of its kind at a Canadian university to promote team-based mathematics. It also offers a model for adapting heritage buildings into contemporary architecture.
In re-housing the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, this muscular adaptive re-use project contrasts the older fabric with the new. The starkly contrasting architectures meet at certain places in the interior: for example, where each office is organized around the stone frame of a Gothic Revival window.
This “interior” project fundamentally alters the nature and organization of the existing structure. Its transformations express evolving pedagogic relationships in the department – among students, and between teachers and students.
Stephen Teeple, FRAIC