Lifting my head out of the water, I get flashes of the outside world. Legs stride past on a slope outside one window, while the tops of buses trundle past another. And here inside the new Aquatic Centre at the University of British Columbia, there’s lots going on: Determined freestylers stream by in the competition pool, while I plod along backstroking in the lap pool, feeling part of it all.
This careful choreography of light and human activity shows the hands of the architecture firm MJMA, who led the design of this building. With pools, community centres and hockey rinks in four provinces, the architects are making a powerful argument: that the places where our kids learn to swim, where we master the wrist shot and where we do Aquafit, are important. And they deserve to be excellent.
“We’ve always taken the approach that these are important civic buildings,” says Ted Watson, one of four partners in the Toronto-based firm. “There’s a lot of thought and expense put into civic centres and concert halls, whereas the lowly hockey rink is actually a place where people spend a ton of time.
“They need to be great public spaces that allow people to gather and come together and strengthen their community.”
The UBC centre, designed by MJMA with Acton Ostry Architects of Vancouver, recently won an award from the Architectural Institute of B.C. While it is a campus pool, it also serves the community of non-students who live at and around UBC; this is typical of MJMA’s work, which is predominantly suburban recreational facilities.
These places might be quotidian, but MJMA, through technical expertise and pure design skill, elevates them to something more than that. “Our approach is always about how you bring light in and how you make the light drive the design,” Watson says.
This is a common platitude among contemporary architects, but those working at MJMA have the rare skill to deliver on that promise. Take the UBC pool. The roof is cut by a skylight in the middle; sunlight from the south pours down and hits a translucent white screen, where it’s balanced out by bright spotlights pointed upward. The effect is a uniform wash of light, each precious lumen of B.C. sun captured and daubed across the space with a painter’s touch.
It’s one in a sequence of bold, welcoming public buildings that have won MJMA an international reputation.
In their home city of Toronto, the firm designed the Regent Park Aquatic Centre, which won them a Governor-General’s Medal in 2016. That centre is a spectacular piece of design, a dark sculptural object that contains a bright and comfortable pool lined with wooden slats and sliding doors that connect to the park next door. The centre is notable for bringing design excellence to a neighbourhood, dominated by social housing, that had long borne a stigma; now, people from across Toronto come to swim there.
Regent Park employs some of the same architectural devices as the UBC pool. Among them are the long central skylight; a roof that’s sculpted into a dramatic, origami-like form; and a set of gender-neutral change rooms that are space efficient and welcoming to all.
This formula comes from experience. Thirty years old this year, MJMA has flown relatively under the radar. Yet, their work keeps getting better and bigger; the firm has completed impressive projects in suburban Calgary and Edmonton, and has projects in the works across much of Ontario. They’ve also been called upon as design architects for a new recreation centre in Arlington, Va., and a massive centre in earthquake-damaged Christchurch, New Zealand.
The firm is now headed by partners Robert Allen, Andrew Filarski, Viktors Jaunkalns and Watson. Collectively, they have expertise in pools and arenas, urban design and architectural detail; the studio also includes interior designers, led by Tarisha Dolyniuk, and landscape architects, led by Darlene Montgomery. This cross-boundary expertise allows the designers to make effective connections between their buildings and the surrounding sites, which are often parks – or, equally, parking lots.
Such settings demand big moves. Where Canada’s most decorated architects tend to worry over details, Mr. Watson compares MJMA’s community buildings to bridges or train sheds. “The power of those large spaces is inspiring,” he argues, “and I think it communicates a public quality. We’re happy to work with a more humble material and use it as a composition that works at any scale.” If a building’s sculptural form has to zig and zag to conceal giant ventilation units, as at UBC, so be it; if it’s wrapped in galvanized metal siding, that’s fine, too.“
Yet their buildings don’t feel brusque; they feel good. That will no doubt be true for the new London Southwest Community Centre, due for completion next year. Combining pool, arena, YMCA, community space and library, it contains many reasons to hang out – and a big lobby in which to do it, with a test kitchen for cooking classes and seats that let you look in on skaters and swimmers.
The centre will also have a scale and toughness that stands up to the Home Depot down the block. “How do you take a site on an arterial road, with a lot of parking, and create a meaningful place?” Mr. Watson asks rhetorically. By bringing people together, and by designing a beautiful big box.