If we see further than they, it is not in virtue of our stronger sight, but because we are lifted up by them and carried to great height. We are dwarfs carried on the shoulders of giants. – Bernard of Chartres Isttaniokaksini/Science Commons rises on the shoulders of two giants across time, a majestic coulee in the Oldman River Valley and University Hall, one of Canada’s most iconic mid-century modern buildings. In the last Ice Age, 15,000 to 10,000 years ago, melting glaciers carved the earth into undulating berms called coulees. Thousands of years later, the ancestors of the Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot Confederacy) left trails with buried sacred objects carrying the spirit of their songs and ceremonies. More than 50 years ago, esteemed Canadian architect Arthur Erickson designed University Hall and conceived a master vision for the newly established University of Lethbridge located on Treaty 7 land. Erickson set the building below the tableland, striking an uncompromising straight line spanning the prairie horizon. This heroic architecture dominated the campus for decades. All subsequent development concentrated to the north, dividing the campus into upper and lower zones. In the first decade of the 21st century, scientists revealed a vision of the physical world as interrelated, coherent, and harmonic. Climate change was accelerating, challenging everyone. The province of Alberta faced an urgent call to diversify from a fossil-fuel reliant economy to a green economy. These and other forces of change mobilized the University of Lethbridge to revisit the master vision and to unify and expand the campus with a new state-of-the-art science building. In 2014, the University selected our team to design Canada’s first building for transdisciplinary science. From the One to the Many Definition of Transdisciplinarity: seeking solutions not through a single discipline, or a single mind, but by bringing people from all the sciences together, to generate innovative solutions to the problems and challenges of our time. The program organizes seven scientific disciplines under one roof: Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Physics, Astronomy, Neuroscience, and Psychology. In contrast to the singular vision of a master architect, the design of Science Commons emerged from a co-creative, integrated design process that included architects, engineers, facility managers, staff, science faculty, and graduate students. Many options were generated and tested before selecting the final site and design solution. The first inclination was to create another linear building. However, the scientists determined linear space was not conducive to the qualities required for transdisciplinary exchange. They needed space that was agile, flexible, interconnected, expansive, contractive, modular, and open, which resulted in a larger, extended floorplate. Although the decision to place Science Commons next to University Hall was controversial, it was the ideal location to realize the goal of a connected campus. A single-storey ‘link’ between Science Commons and University Hall effectively bridges the upper and lower campuses and serves as an informal seating area offering spectacular views across the coulee landscape. The plan organizes the program into five volumes around a central atrium: four rectangular two-storey ‘lab lofts’ and a square-shaped auditorium box. Lab lofts are inflected and staggered to keep the large floorplate open to views of the landscape. Each ‘lab loft’ combines disciplines based on synergies of methodologies and equipment. For example, Psychology and Physics are paired because they require less heavily-serviced equipment. A highly efficient, concrete bay system provides maximum height and flexibility. Glass walls facing all circulation spaces place science on display, everywhere. A sequence of generously scaled gathering spaces animates the building perimeter: the Entry Court, North and East Terraces, the Main Atrium, and the South Wintergarden. The East Terrace, affording views of the coulee Valley is intentionally sculpted to mitigate gusting winds and to capture the early morning sun. The design riffs off Erickson’s original inspiration - the 1909 Viaduct, a trestle bridge spanning the Oldman River Valley to the north and still the largest of its type in the world. For University Hall, Erickson cut a singular horizontal mass into the coulee landscape, like a ship through waves. This legacy of low, horizontal forms set between earth and sky extends into the architecture of the new building, but as an essay in contrasts. On-site excavation was limited to removing the overburden from the coulee that was excavated to make room for University Hall. The new building sails on top of the coulees. Each façade expresses rhythmic lightness and transparency evocative of the steel towers supporting the Viaduct. Integrated Sustainable Design: People and Place First A holistic approach to sustainability balances human comfort with significant reductions in energy, carbon emissions, and operating costs by using abundant passive solar and wind energies from Lethbridge’s uniquely dry, and sunny climate. Current performance is at 48.6% energy reduction (and Energy Cost Savings of 38.4%) making it one of the most energy-efficient labs in Canada. Post-pandemic, the generous spaces, interconnecting stairs, abundant natural light, and fresh air offer one the healthiest spots to study and gather on campus. At the Threshold of the 21st Century Canada’s first building for transdisciplinary science, Isttaniokaksini/Science Commons sets a benchmark for reducing carbon emissions in Alberta’s building industry. It is one of the few places outside NASA designed to accommodate instruments for future space missions. The LEED Gold certified Isttaniokaksini/Science Commons creates a place for world-leading scientists and future generations to come together, share, and discover solutions for a regenerative world.
KPMB Architects is an internationally recognized Canadian design firm located in Toronto. KPMB’s designs prioritize the quality of the human experience and create unique vibrant, sustainable spaces that support both community and city.
KPMB’s design approach is collaborative and based on integrated design thinking and processes. Services include architecture, interior design, master planning, and workplace strategy. Their portfolio is diverse, reinforcing their commitment to building a culture of diversity and inclusion. Since 2000, KPMB has designed and delivered on over 31 million square feet of projects in the sectors of business, culture, education, mixed-use residential and office developments, government, healthcare, and hospitality.
Established in 1987, KPMB’s work has received over 400 awards, including 16 Governor General’s Medals. The founding partners, Bruce Kuwabara, Marianne McKenna, and Shirley Blumberg are each recipients of the Order of Canada.