August 1, 2014
One of the biggest challenges of our generation will be addressing the sustainability of North America’s suburbs. The majority of Canada’s population growth continues to occur in suburbia, and despite the deserved attention being given to the renaissance of urban places, there’s little indication that the suburbs are going away any time soon. But suburbia is changing—particularly through the creation of new suburban “downtowns.”
Surrey’s new City Hall, designed by a joint venture of Toronto-based Moriyama & Teshima and Vancouver-based Kasian, is a touchstone case. Arguably, nowhere in Canada is suburban urbanization more rapid and ambitious than in the Surrey City Centre development. In fact, it’s not really fair to call this evolving area suburban anymore. For Surrey, having its new City Hall in the emerging City Centre was both a powerful symbolic statement and a highly pragmatic decision. Surrey’s former City Hall was quintessentially suburban in both design and location, and relocating the new City Hall to the core has been a key move in turning it into a real downtown. City Hall’s new location places it close to transit, businesses, emerging high-density housing, and the regional Main Street. Surrey wants residents, consultants and developers to have easy access to City Hall. And it wants City Hall to be an anchor for its Civic Precinct, the heart of the City Centre.
Spurred on by Mayor Dianne Watts and a successful development mechanism in the form of the Surrey City Development Corporation, the Civic Precinct has been evolving piece by piece according to a highly
flexible master plan. Even before the new City Hall was complete, the Precinct had been checking the right boxes—it includes a satellite university campus full of students, easy transit access from both SkyTrain stations and a busy feeder bus system, and civic facilities including an acclaimed new public library designed by Bing Thom of BTA Architects (see CA, September 2012). Future plans for the area include an arena, recreation centre, connection to a new LRT line, and increased housing—the goal is to double the City Centre population from 28,000 to 50,000 by 2026. As Kasian’s Michael McDonald puts it, each design change adds to “the choreography and sequencing of movement that’s evolving like a dance.”
Ironically, in the early months of City Hall’s occupancy, transit accessibility was a double-edged sword. On one hand, the new City Hall location was easily accessible via SkyTrain, and by what city staff say is a surprisingly efficient bus service on the Fraser Highway. The new Hall is even credited as a recruitment advantage for some departments, particularly since many staffers live in other parts of the region, including Vancouver.
On the other hand, many long-serving staff were used to the ample surface parking in the suburban location, and didn’t live in areas near transit lines. Even more frustrating for them, free parking is now a thing of the past as the City incentivizes staff to take public transit. Some senior staff have even chosen early retirement, supposedly because of the change in location, but City leadership see that as part of a natural turnover that was already occurring. Whatever the effects, the shift to a transit-oriented civic location—and in time a walkable and bikeable one as the Precinct’s pedestrian corridor, sidewalks and cycle lanes take further shape—was deliberate and vision-driven, and the City is unapologetic.
If a pedestrian corridor is the spine of the Precinct, then the new City Hall Plaza, constructed as part of Kasian and Moriyama & Teshima’s design, is intended to be the heart of its public realm. Mayor Watts championed a space that could host large civic gatherings. The ample plaza was inspired in size and scale, McDonald says, by Venice’s grand Piazza San Marco.
Any plaza of this size is a challenge to animate on a daily basis, and this one is no exception. Although the library edge can be critiqued for its failure to provide an active, or even a landscaped threshold, with City Hall, a concerted effort has been made to activate the plaza. A six-storey- high glazed wall connects its main atrium to the public square at grade, and broad oversized steps serve as prime seats overlooking the plaza. A living wall adjoins these steps, adding greenery and creating a pleasant microclimate for lingering. Tucked alongside, a café is designed to spill out into the public space. According to City planning manager Don Luymes, a future mixed-use tower will add shops and restaurant patios along the plaza’s eastern edge.
Hidden underneath the plaza is further infrastructure that provides the potential for daily animation. Fountain jets are embedded in the ground throughout the square, and a portion of the plaza accommodates skating in the winter season. Data and electrical points allow for regular farmers’ markets and festival stages. The effectiveness of these moves remains to be seen, and only when the population of the area reaches its planned goals will it be possible to tell whether the plaza can retain its vibrancy on those days when it isn’t being used for big events.
The new City Hall itself is both striking and civic-minded. Schematically, the building is divided into three parts. A legislative east wing includes the Council Chamber and a suite of meeting rooms. The granite clad back wall of the Chamber includes a wall of glass doors, rendering the deliberations of local legislators literally transparent to the public. The larger west side of the building, which tapers into a triangle to align with adjacent streets, houses administrative functions including all staff offices. On the ground floor, service counters allow for intuitive access to day-to-day city functions such as paying bills.
Joining the two programmatic halves, a soaring atrium dubbed the “City Room” ascends the entire height of the building. Skylights add to the luxurious sense of volume. Floor-to-ceiling glazing on both ends transforms the atrium into an inviting passageway between 104th Avenue and the Civic Plaza. A metallic sculpture of a flock of birds by Studio Roso, suspended around the level of the fourth storey, adds to the sense of airiness. Initially, staff were unsure what was allowed or expected in the space, but Luymes says that now, the atrium has “started to be lived in.” Staff routinely set up displays for City projects, and community groups can request to use the space for civic initiatives.
A monumental cantilevered roof frames and unifies the building’s three volumes. The roof’s striking underside, made from Douglas fir, creates a sense of warmth, particularly in its deep projection over the adjacent plaza. Wood is also used on the ceiling and walls of the City Room. Further blending plaza and atrium, the striated pattern of the pavers covering the plaza extend through the atrium, which is laid with tiles in identical grey and charcoal tones. The pattern, says Diarmuid Nash, lead architect with Moriyama & Teshima, alludes to the log booms in the Fraser River that once fuelled the regional economy.
Along the western edge of the building, the roof wraps down to form a concrete wall, with angled elements surrounding windows of different shapes and sizes. These look into meeting and gathering areas for staff. The material and sculptural qualities mark the building as a cousin to Bing Thom’s library, whose entrance faces the same street. “One of the unique elements that we found in Surrey was the use of concrete as a finished material in contemporary civic building,” says Nash. “We felt that the corner of 104th and University Drive required a strong response, which is where we developed a concrete sculptural wall influenced as much by the spirit of Marcel Breuer’s work as the need to respond to a west elevation and the Surrey City Library.”
Surrey City Hall is targeting LEED Gold certification, and includes many sustainable features. A green roof tops the building, and while not accessible, contributes to the building’s energy performance. It is heated and cooled in part with geothermal energy, as the entire Precinct is intended to be. Translucent glass fins provide shade to protect the building from excessive solar gain. The atrium is naturally vented, allowing heat to dissipate in the summer while encouraging air circulation throughout the building.
From the beginning, a primary goal of the building design was to create airy spaces that allow natural light to penetrate deeply. This helps reduce energy costs, but more importantly it contributes to the liveability and comfort for occupants of the building. One staffer told McDonald, “I didn’t realize how natural light could change my life. I now go home each day with lots of energy, and I think it’s because of all that light.” Office spaces also include operable windows, and outdoor decks on the upper floors give employees greater access to light and fresh air.
In true civic spirit, many of the main spaces were designed to serve multiple—and often public—functions. The Council Chamber in the legislative east wing doubles as a community space and performance hall, and the atrium is also intended for events and public uses that might spill over into the outdoor plaza in a seamless way. This flow between interior and exterior, along with related wayfinding, works well because of clear sightlines established between the component pieces of the puzzle throughout the Civic Precinct.
The City smartly insisted on a daycare facility as part of the design, and its placement on the ground floor makes it easily accessible. One of the daycare’s outdoor play areas, perched on a raised podium well connected to the main plaza, has particular potential to become a much loved space—offering children and their caretakers views of the activity below, while the joyful sound of their play drifts into the public square.
The best indication of any building’s success is perhaps how the users feel about it, and Luymes says that “staff love working in the building.” In particular, they appreciate what the location affords them—the ability to get a coffee without jumping into their car, and to walk to a myriad of lunch spots.
Mayor Watts believes that as much as $3 billion in private-sector investment will result from the City’s investments in the Civic Precinct, including City Hall. The results, McDonald feels, will be seen as successful if what is built “feels like Surrey.” What this means continues to be defined, but clearly this will be a much more urban and lively Surrey than ever seen before.
Surrey City Centre is a remarkable opportunity to build something authentic to the city’s future while providing the rest of Canada with a new model for what a successful, mixed-use suburban downtown might look like when it’s scaled for people and guided by a strong civic vision. In the meantime, Surrey’s new City Hall can already be considered a success—not just as a piece of architecture, but as a catalyst for the kind of city Surrey wants to be.