ARIDO Award: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Lobby and Entrance

The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at UofT , a leader in Indigenous Education, is a decades-old institution with a demonstrated commitment to equity, diversity, and social justice. However, the entrance and lobby to the OISE building were dark, challenging to access from busy Bloor Street West, and did not meet the diverse needs or achievements of this institution’s community. Our design strategy was to create an inclusive and accessible space that facilitates community building, incorporates Indigenous design elements, and creates a safe environment with enhanced wayfinding and branding.

Interior Designer: Valerie Gow, ARIDO
Design Firm: Gow Hastings Architects
Joint Venture: Two Row Architect
Photographer: Tom Arban

Night image illuminated dimensional OISE letter sign on the front of the building
View of the OISE building from Bloor street and dimensional OISE letter sign on the front of the building

To visually enhance the OISE campus presence among the hustle and bustle of a busy Toronto street, we made signage improvements including illuminated dimensional letter sign on the building front.  We designed a perforated copper welcome sign with an internally illuminated screen that signposts the stairs leading to the main entrance. To make the path to the entrance brighter and more welcoming, we dispersed LED light sticks amongst feather reed grass and Indigenous hydrangea landscaping along the arcade.

A perforated copper welcome sign with an internally illuminated screen that signposts the stairs leading to the main entrance

Building access and navigation within the interior were improved by replacing  the existing revolving entrance with a new glass vestibule with motion-sensored doors, and the slippery quarry tile ramp was reworked with non-skid porcelain. Inside, two digital directories assist with internal wayfinding. 

While most of the lobby is a double-height space, the elevator lobby contained a lowered ceiling that made it feel dark and confined. To embrace this existing element, mirrors were added above the elevator lobby entry and along its ceiling to reflect light and visually expand the upper limit of the existing ceiling. By doing this we created the illusion that the elevator lobby also has high ceilings. The elevator lobby entryway serves as a point of interest for installing electronic signage and a blue-branded OISE sign. This allows users to quickly view signage and key information as they enter the lobby.

Elevator lobby entrance showing the mirrors on the ceiling that make the whole space seem to have double height like the rest of the lobby space
View of the lobby with modular curvy seating in a blue colour and seating area along the wall of windows

The layout of the lobby was carefully planned to increase efficiency of space usage. Considering the Indigenous community planned to use the space for discussions, the lobby was maintained as an open lounge area with flexibility of use, including modular soft seating for talking circles, as well as touchdown stations for studying. These were strategically located along the existing large floor to ceiling windows, to maximize student study space with access to natural light and views to outside. The lobby provides renewed space for placemaking, gathering and discussion, featuring a modular sofa that winds and curves at 70-degree angles, configuring a non-hierarchical seating order for talking circles. 

Indigenous design elements are integrated into the lobby and entrance to highlight OISE’s commitment to Indigenization, including a floor-to-ceiling wampum belt installation by the entryway to elevator lobby. It is a rendition of the Dish With One Spoon wampum, which marks an agreement originally made between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe that models how relationships should be formed and maintained in Tkaronto (Toronto). Constructed with white and purple steel pipes, the installation inventively emulates the tubular shape and natural colouring of quahog clam shell beads used in traditional wampum belts.

Cedar and copper were used both outdoors and indoors to accent key design elements, drawing from their significance as meaningful materials used by Indigenous groups in the Great Lakes region for thousands of years. The upgraded building arcade and new glass main entrance vestibule are ornamented with copper signage that promotes the OISE brand, while the  indigenous hydrangea landscaping along the arcade makes the path to the entrance more inviting. Under the shade of the building canopy are benches made from cedar – selected for its significance as a traditional medicine plant – which warm up the surrounding concrete and provide places to sit and relax. 

View of the lobby facing the elevator entrance with modular curvy seating in a blue colour and seating area along the wall of windows

Another unique element of the space is its alignment with Indigenous directionality, which helps OISE meet the objective of incorporating Indigenous design elements and perspectives into the lobby. Linear light fixtures stretch across the ceiling to form the pattern of the Pleiades star cluster, known to Indigenous groups as the Seven Sisters. The copper-coloured in-sets run along the floor to align with the sacred cardinal directions of north, east, south, and west.

The hydroponic plant wall is a biophilic element in this interior that is both aesthetic and functional focal point of the lobby while improving indoor air quality. This vertical garden builds a biofilter with two layers of plants, whose exposed roots consume air contaminants and provide biofiltration. The wall brings the natural world inside, and in addition to improving air quality, improves the sense of well-being.

The renovation of the OISE entrance and lobby creates dedicated spaces which honour and reflect Indigenous identities and cultures, and are inclusive, comfortable and welcoming for Indigenous students, faculty and staff.