Let It Shine

Norman Foster’s University of Toronto building animates the city after dark with the help of a little light.

When the sun goes down and the lights go up, the Leslie L. Dan Faculty of Pharmacy Building comes alive. Situated on a major downtown corner of the University of Toronto campus, it’s Norman Foster’s first project in this city, and he let lighting consultant Claude Engle loose to turn its glass lobby into a glowing receptacle for color.

“We brought him into the job right at the beginning,” explains project architect Stephen Best, of Foster’s London office. “Norman likes to work with him because he brings something most light engineers can’t. He isn’t into technology, he’s into space, light, and architecture.” The 12‑story tower, which sits across from the Ontario provincial legislature, is essentially a box atop a box with a small twist. The upper half is clad in patterned glass, but the five-floor atrium below contains two bulbous pods finished in smooth white plaster that become canvases for Engle’s light show after dark.

“The idea came up early on that these special rooms could ‘float’ in the atrium and reveal to the world that this wasn’t an ordinary building,” Engle says from his studio in Washington, D.C. “It’s a space that’s fairly playful, so we thought, Why not make it theatrical?” With soaring glass panels uninterrupted except for the pods suspended overhead, the atrium is ideally suited to the play of light. “As the sun sets, the power of the color becomes more apparent,” says Engle, who began his career as a theatrical lighting designer. “Your awareness begins with one color, but if you watch it carefully, you see it start to change.”

Although the pods appear to be backlit—one pulsing with orange‑red, the other purple-blue—they are illuminated by spotlights attached to columns in the lobby and controlled by a computer. “We used good old-fashioned theatrical lights called PAR cans, with gels attached to each one,” Engle explains. The colors change slowly and subtly, but by the time the cycle is complete, the space has been completely transformed. “Through lighting,” Best says, “you can make a massive difference to architecture.”

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