The Architect
Marianne McKenna often puts a bench in front of the entrance of the buildings she designs so that people can sit in the sun. Instant public space, she says. Over the last three decades, the architect and her practice, KPMB Architects, have defined many of Toronto’s key cultural, educational and residential spaces. Marianne believes that safe spaces should be connected, be it through bustling ground floors or even Uber, which she finds incredibly convenient.
Marianne McKenna, who has taught at McGill University, L’Université de Montréal, the University of Toronto and her alma mater, Yale, was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2012 for crafting architecture that enriches the public experience. She is photographed here at the offices of KPMB Architects on King Street West, Toronto, by Reynard Li.

Marianne McKenna, who has taught at McGill University, L’Université de Montréal, the University of Toronto and her alma mater, Yale, was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2012 for crafting architecture that enriches the public experience. She is photographed here at the offices of KPMB Architects on King Street West, Toronto, by Reynard Li.

“We were adamant about the ability to see what’s happening inside out and outside in”

“It’s all about the body language of a building,” says Marianne McKenna. “In art history, if you have your arms crossed across your chest, it’s a defensive position, versus arms akimbo, where your gesturing is more of an outreach and sharing of information. I think buildings should have that same body language.” 

Marianne and her partners at KPMB Architects design buildings that are transparent – quite literally. Often a study in geometries, and often made of steel and plate glass, the firm’s buildings are welcoming, rooting themselves in the communities in which they sit. “In the 1980s, when we founded the firm, it was all about defensible architecture,” says Marianne. “The University of Toronto was saying, ‘We need space that is durable to abuse and defensible,’ whereas we wanted to create spaces that drew people in.” 

For Marianne, safe public spaces are accessible, blurring the divisions between public and private. The ground floor of Le Quartier Concordia, a project recently completed for Concordia University in downtown Montreal, for instance, is entirely transparent. The three-story, glass-fronted atrium acts as a natural extension of the Rue Sainte-Catherine sidewalk, allowing pedestrians easy visual access to the building’s interior. “The project was extensive,” she says, “but one of the things we were adamant about was the ability to see what’s happening inside out and outside in, to sort of feel the love of the university and feel that, as a passerby, it is accessible to you, that it is open to you, that you can go into the foyer or take the escalator down into the Guy metro station.” 

Providing places for interaction, this accessibility creates a sense of security through the building’s vibrancy and vitality. It also underscores that a framework for these interactions is essential in cities. “When we look at cities, we often look at connectivity both physically – through safe, walkable routes or public transport – and culturally,” says Marianne. “We want to create public spaces that foster stewardship. Over the last three years, every client has asked us to develop a dialogue with the community that is being created.” 

KPMB’s cultural connection comes through engaging the local community, prompting residents to think about their internal community as well as their external one. Be it through programming, outreach, or simply making atriums, auditoriums and other facilities available after hours, these connections create safe, engaging spaces by recognizing that divisions within cities are entirely arbitrary. 

“It goes beyond the planning and design of a space,” says Marianne. “In 2007 we did the master plan for Ryerson University, which offers programs ranging from journalism to nursing to college-type technical training. The university and its students interface with the whole community, so we spoke to everyone. The fellowship that comes through this communication is so important. We’ve just done the plan for the St. Michael’s Cathedral block, which sits near Ryerson and the city’s gay community and they’ve asked for the exact same thing”


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