York University in Toronto has one of the most diverse student populations in the world. Its more than 55,000 students represent nearly every ethnicity, culture, nationality, religion, identity and ability. But as one of the largest universities in North America with a high proportion of commuters, it can be hard for students to find others like themselves. So, the student body decided to make a change.
Their idea was to build a second student center devoted solely to student space. This idea was put to the test in 2013 in a special referendum. Close to 10,000 student votes were cast—the highest voter turnout in the history of Canadian post-secondary institutions—with nearly 90 percent voting in favor. What came after was an incredibly inclusive design process that resulted in a new campus heart and one of the best new pieces of architecture in Canada.
The process of designing the new building was completely driven by students, with more than 11,000 participating in the process. Their input led to a four-story, modern building that houses space for study, studios, club offices, meetings and multi-faith prayer. As a sculptural object, it celebrates the site’s prominence by acting as a gateway that is transparent and open, and a place of debate, advocacy and engagement.
We created a building where every student can feel welcome, safe, motivated and connected to their peers. We employed one of the most inclusive processes ever undertaken at a post-secondary institution and delivered a building that is completely reflective of the student body.Siva Vimalachandran Executive Director of the Student Centre
The fourth floor is fully devoted to multi-faith prayer space. Here, the floor cantilevers out over those below and features dramatic uses of wood and glass to create a destination for spiritual reflection. This prayer space, including two ablution rooms for the Islamic cleansing ritual, is especially important as York has a significant Muslim student population.
Importantly, the building functions as a lifeline for students battling issues such as food insecurity and mental health. Centers for food support, wellness and social services are all housed within the student center—not hidden from sight, but accessible in a completely welcoming building designed with clear sightlines, transparency, and progressive lighting to increase safety for all.
In talking with students on campus, the student center delivers what they need and more. Fatima Babiker, president of the York Federation of Students, sums it up well. “Every student can be themselves here, and the concentration of so many cultures, beliefs and identities in one space broadens the minds of everyone around them.”