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Saturday, November 1, 2014

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A place to meet and share on campus

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The new Centre for Jewish Studies offers a place for students to meet and study. [Naomi Finlay photo]

With only 1,500 square feet, architect Leslie Klein set out to create a warm, inviting space that combines ancient Jewish tradition with modern elements, in the newly redesigned Centre for Jewish Studies at University of Toronto.

The plan was to have a space in the heart of the St. George campus where students and faculty could collaborate and learn from one another.

“The idea was that I want to have one person feel comfortable here, and 40 people,” said Klein, an architect for Quadrangle Architects Limited in Toronto, which spearheaded the project.

The centre is in the campus’ Jackman Humanities building.

“The university recognized that we needed an address on campus that would allow us to work with our partner units, and all the big humanities programs are in this building,” said the centre’s executive director, political science professor Jeffrey Kopstein. “This allows us to have a program that is deeply integrated.”

What Kopstein and his team didn’t want was a separate Jewish studies building off to the side of the campus. Nor did they want a space that would be overflowing with Jewish symbols and artifacts, since of the 4,000 students who take Jewish studies courses, only about 20 per cent are Jewish, Kopstein said.

The centre has 72 faculty members from various university departments teaching a total of about 91 courses.

While the U of T Jewish studies program was founded in 1967, the Centre for Jewish Studies was not established until 2008. Now that it has been relocated to a central hub on campus, “it’s a huge signal that the university’s priorities are changing,” Kopstein said.

But meeting everyone’s demands was not easy. Klein had to create enough personalized space for permanent and visiting faculty members, yet leave a large, open area where students could work and hang out.

His design includes a central space with desks along the wall for students, large flexible tables in the centre that can be moved around for various activities, and couches for students who just want to spend time there. Bright, orange chairs, dark wood and glass walls set off the soft bronze and copper toned materials.

“On one level, it reminded us of the design of ancient synagogues, which were actually not theatre style, but more parliamentary style, where people sat on two sides and exchanged ideas across the hall,” Klein said.

And unlike in many other faculty headquarters on campus, private offices are not the focal point. Instead, they line the wall, separated from the open space with only a glass partition, partially covered by a layer of palimpsest, paper that has been used several times.

“In ancient times, when paper was not ubiquitous but was actually very valuable, when people wanted to write something, they would reuse old pieces of paper,” Klein said. “They would literally scrape off the old ink and reuse [the paper]. And if you scrape off ink time and time again, you don’t really lose what was there before but you layer on top of it. We really wanted to emphasize that knowledge is better layering on.”

The natural, modern space is a stark contrast to what it looked like before. “It was a very conventional, partitioned 1960s office space,” Kopstein said. “It was as if you walked into a bank.”

He believes the design has already made a difference in helping the centre achieve its goals.

“I actually teach a class of 1,200 students, so if I have office hours here, there can be about 30 students in here. Where would they normally go? In a normal office building, they would be lined up in the hallway,” Kopstein said. “Here, they can sit down, have a coffee, and we actually get Jewish studies majors that way. People get interested. They talk to one another.

“It’s part of the changing demographics in Toronto too,” he added. “I really think that what Les has done here is allowed us to contribute to the rebirth of downtown Jewish Toronto.”

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