Standing on a corner at Richmond Street West and Portland in Toronto, there is little sign that one of the city’s most innovative youth shelters is just a few feet away. Eva’s Phoenix is tucked at one end of an Art Deco-era building that is now plastered with developer billboards, indicating the rest of the former utilities building is slated for a major renovation. Called Waterworks, the development is one of the better examples of community building in the city. Beside condos, the masterplan includes generous amounts of space for a much-desired food market and a YMCA.
Eva’s is actually the first permanent tenant in the building, and to get beyond its nondescript front door, visitors are buzzed in by a staff member who sits behind protective glass. They need to see ID before they will unlock a second door.
The safety measures are warranted. Many of the residents, aged 16 to 24, are here because they need a place to stay that’s impenetrable by unwanted outside influences. They are here to get their lives back on track. Still, it is a surprise to find yourself, beyond the tight security, walking along a wide and inviting corridor flooded with natural light streaming in from a pitched glass rooftop three storeys above. A foosball table out in the open is an all-hours invitation for making friendly connections.
The interior reads more like a small town street lined on either side by cube-shaped townhouses, painted mostly white, but also with pleasing hits of bright colour. The floor is buffed concrete, which looks fresh and modern, and the odd planter is filled with greenery. A streetscape is actually how architect Dean Goodman, co-founding principal of LGA, describes the shelter’s overall design, where 3,828-square-metres of space provides bedrooms for 50 youth who live, for up to a year, in one of the 10 “houses.”
The rooms are designed as singles and residents can either stay in their rooms for privacy, or step onto balcony-like overhangs that face onto the atrium, to see what others are up to. The various viewing points make the entire shelter feel open and alive. There are no dark corners or hallways, and the stairwells are highly visible.
These structural gestures might seem too minor to mention, but their collective effect is impressive. Bright, inviting and centrally located, the project is a remarkable example of how humane architecture, and a $10.5-million budget, can transform an unused space into a community that can actually transform lives. When Goodman walked us through the project just before the first residents moved in, he pointed out some of the features that make the results so successful. LGA replaced existing clerestory windows and added new skylights, an obvious choice to maximize the natural light. Less obvious was the firm’s decision to create multiple open levels.
“We paid a lot of attention to how the street design and its adjacent spaces could foster a sense of community and activity,” he says. The goal was to enable youth to determine their own level of comfort in the shelter.” Residents have the option to engage with others, or just watch what’s going on around them from the balconies.
Above one of the rows of townhouses, there are “rooftop” meeting areas that provide semi-private spaces for working, meeting, or counselling. On the ground level a teaching kitchen invites communal dining, and in the basement a wood workshop and a commercial print shop are set up. Both teach and employ residents to help them develop new skills.
LGA has a long history of building humane architecture for not-for-profit clients and this is the third collaboration with Eva’s. Says Goodman: “This is a project that’s all about doing the right thing – for the kids, the neighbourhood and the city. It’s architecture that results from will and collaboration.” To succeed in this type of building you have to have “an open mind, about how design can best address the challenges at hand.”