Indigenous cultural elements and technology inform design of Seneca College’s Centre for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship

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A new face for Seneca’s Newnham Campus on Finch Avenue, the 274,000 sq. ft. CITE building houses state-of-the art engineering and robotics labs and an entrepreneurial incubator for students and industry leaders.

Perkins and Will reveals Indigenous-led design of Seneca’s newest building at Newnham Campus

TORONTO — As part of Seneca’s commitment to furthering Indigenous education, global architecture and design firm Perkins and Will has unveiled the Centre for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship (CITE) on the Newnham Campus. Located on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, CITE’s Indigenous-led design is part of Seneca’s commitment to the Indigenous Education Protocol, signed by Seneca in 2015, and developed by Colleges and Institutes Canada as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) call for action.

Perkins and Will worked closely with the First Peoples@Seneca Office to ensure Indigenous communities were reflected in the building’s artwork and design. Offering counselling, financial aid, cultural events and other resources to the Indigenous community, the First Peoples@Seneca Office was uniquely positioned to lead community consultations that spanned a year and involved members of the Indigenous Education Council, students, alumni, employees and elders.

“We developed a very fulsome consultation process to ensure that Seneca’s Indigenous communities took pride and saw themselves reflected in the building. CITE is about ingrained knowledge that has been part of the land for generations. We understood that we were standing on the shoulders of giants, and we needed to have Indigenous communities meaningfully contribute to its design. These communities became the content of the building,” says Mark Solomon, Dean of Students and Indigenous Education.

A highly visible atrium runs along the building’s southern edge and connects CITE with Newnham Campus on multiple levels. Bleacher stairs allow students to showcase their work and adaptable, modular interiors provide flexible classrooms and breakout spaces.

As part of its commitment to the TRC, Seneca is also working with colleges and universities across Canada to share learnings on how to incorporate Indigenous teachings into academic programs, and reflect Indigenous culture and history on campus.

Messaging about Indigenous teachings and history are integrated through the building’s design. The façade features a series of punctuated terracotta panels and boxes evoking Anishinaabe birchbark ‘memory chests.’

Indigenous-led design

Integrating Indigenous thinking within an academic setting, CITE features labs with industry-leading robotics technology, an incubator space for entrepreneurs, open-concept study areas and lounges, and expansive event space. For the first time, CITE also brings together all of Seneca’s administrative offices under one roof.

A Digital Fabrication Suite, adjacent to the main atrium, is one of the many multi-disciplinary spaces supporting innovation and research. Students and businesses will have access to a variety of incubator spaces and labs to support their entrepreneurial activities.

“CITE presented the perfect opportunity to show how Indigenous knowledge can guide post-secondary education. To provide a more sustainable vision for future innovation, we paired themes like the Internet, space exploration and coding with Indigenous knowledge spanning seven generations,” says Andrew Frontini, Principal and Design Director at Perkins and Will’s Toronto studio. “We organized the structural order of the building elements of the building to support these theme. As you walk through CITE, you encounter overlapping Indigenous and technological stories that initially might speak to different audiences, but over time our hope is that they merge together as one.”

These overlapping narratives are revealed through CITE’s modular architecture, terraced landscaping and interior design. Moving through the building, students and visitors will discover eight graphic murals that explore the relationship between Indigenous cultural elements and technology. Created in collaboration with design firm Bruce Mau Design, graphics feature a hoop dance, a pow wow, DNA sequencing, a map of the Internet, among others.

A 10-metre-diameter terrazzo medallion at the main entrance, called the “Circle of Indigenous Knowledge,” was designed by artist Joseph Sagaj and includes abstract references to hundreds of Indigenous teachings. A graphic treatment of a hoop dance on the wall beside the medallion represents the strong spirit present in many Indigenous teachings.

At the heart of the atrium, an award-winning terrazzo medallion is inset into the floor. Created by Indigenous artist Joseph Sagaj, the Circle of Indigenous Knowledge is 10 metres in diameter and features symbols and cultures of First Nations people of the Great Lakes, the Metis and the Inuit of the Arctic.

Passersby will also notice a large, glowing light fixture in the third-floor student lounge. The installation, developed by Perkins and Will, projects a light show that simulates the northern lights when viewed from the street.

A four-storey interpretative graphic element created by Bruce Mao Design depicts the 1787 Toronto Purchase land deal between the Mississaugas of the Credit and the British Crown.

Indigenous worldviews and design extend to the exterior as well. The entrance facing Finch Avenue shows the signature page and map from the 1787 Toronto Purchase land deal between the Mississaugas of the Credit and the British Crown, which was created by Bruce Mau Design. The opposite eastern entrance depicts a map of the universe, representing the progression of technology since the signing of the treaty. Between the two entrances, 13 columns line the front façade of the building. Each column represents one of the 13 moons of the lunar cycle with the corresponding moon names in Anishnaabe.

Indigenous storytelling is baked into the building’s architecture. While the structural colonnade provides the south façade with solar shading, it also acts as a cultural gallery along Finch Avenue. Thirteen columns represent the 13 moons of the lunar cycle.

Project details
Location: Toronto
Completion: 2019
Cost: $85 million
Size: 274,000 sq. ft., five storeys
Architecture: Perkins and Will’s Toronto studio
Design consultant: Bruce Mau Design
LEED: Platinum-targeted
Image credits: Doublespace

A terraced entry plaza connects CITE to the Newnham Campus main building. This accessible urban landscape reintroduces biodiversity and is key in the storm water management strategy for the new development.
Photo credits: Doublespace