Markham’s Aaniin Community Centre is everything Markham isn’t. Not only is the elegant facility a place that mixes things up as it brings them together, it delights in its many uses and takes unabashed pleasure in being a stage for the unexpected. The city, by contrast, is a maze of everything-in-its-place separateness, zoned irrationality and imposed auto-dependence.
But change has to start somewhere and — who knows? — perhaps this is it.
To be fair, Markham embarked on a path to urbanity some time ago. Though still under construction, the city’s new “downtown” presents a wholly different vision from the “multiplication by subdivision” that the late Frederick Gardiner, the first chair of Metro Toronto, talked about way back when. Since then, Markham turned itself into a sea of sprawl, an endless succession of dead-end streets lined with an endless succession of houses so similar it can be hard to tell one from another.
No wonder suburbia has become the target of constant criticism and condescension. Yet for better or worse this is where millions of Canadians choose to spend their lives. As much as anything, the popularity of the suburbs is undoubtedly a function of the relatively low cost of housing. But the success of Aaniin, which means welcome in Ojibwe, reminds us that cities like Markham tend to give residents what they need more than what they want. As Gertrude Stein might have said of Markham, there’s no there there, no place between the family home and shopping mall, the cul-de-sac and the school, the highway and the workplace where people can hang out, meet for a coffee, a drink and conversation, walk, sit, read…
In other words, Aaniin is the public realm Markham has never had. And although the principles the centre embodies are decidedly urban, it belongs here regardless. The building is bisected by a “main street” that runs through the building connecting various amenities, everything from a gym and a library to a cluster of swimming pools and second-floor workout facilities.
As architect Duff Balmer of Perkins + Will puts it, “The challenge was to create a sense of place in a location where there was none. The idea of the building was that it should be about connections … We saw it as a series of interactions.”
And so the workout space overlooks the main “square,” where events — dinners, meetings and movie screenings — occur. The library is across the “road” from the pools. Seating areas reinforce the feeling of an indoor village open to residents as well as users. What holds the whole thing together is the ceiling, finished in wood throughout the centre. It adds warmth and visual consistency to a hard-surfaced building constructed mostly of glass and concrete.
Outside, the roof becomes a canopylike extension that ties surrounding spaces to the structure making it seem larger than it is. Held up rows of v-columns reminiscent of Will Alsop’s famous “flying tabletop” at the Ontario College of Art and Design, the roof also provides the architectural drama that defines Aaniin and enables it to be a landmark on the largely undifferentiated landscape of industrial-scale housing.
“We’ve done a lot of rec centres,” Balmer says, “but this one was different. We had to let go of our assumptions about what a community centre should be. It’s kind of ironic that the suburbs should have created this kind of model. But people are desperate for a sense of place. Markham has embraced this model. They wanted us to try new things. We went back to first principles here.”
Originally, community centres had a primarily athletic focus; many were attached to arenas. In the last decade, however, they have taken on a social/cultural dimension. Aaniin has the regulation gym, pools and exercise spaces, but there are also study areas, a library and room for a food market outdoors. The point is to give residents as many reasons and opportunities as possible to visit.
By contrast, for decades suburban Markham has been dedicated to the idea of isolating uses and getting from one to the other by car. No surprise then that the centre comes with a mall-sized parking lot or that the large empty site to the south is slated for a subdivision. Still, the fact Aaniin has become the most used building in Markham is a sure sign of a community ready for an intervention as happily subversive as the centre.
Christopher Hume is a former Star reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @HumeChristopher