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The Lost Eco-didactic Utopia
Editorial by Aristofanis Soulikias

Part of the River Natural Science School in the Niagara escarpment region in Shelbourne, Ontario, the Boyne River Ecology Centre was first conceived by engineer Greg Allen when asked to upgrade an existing cottage, who in turn brought architect Douglas Pollard to build a near zero-impact demonstration building. The project was completed in 1993 with funds by the Toronto Board of Education and was used for giving classes and demonstrations to the children who stayed in the nearby school buildings. [3]

The building relied heavily on passive heating and cooling and drew electrical power from a wind machine, solar panels and a micro hydro generator (depending on the season). Sewage and waste-water were treated naturally. It had a 16-sided near circular plan, an earth roof made of the excavated soil during construction, and it was half-buried in the earth. Both the roof and the uninsulated basement were designed to act as heat sinks. The building materials were mostly natural and non-toxic, often sourced locally, and were used with minimal added finishes. [3]

As part of a teaching facility, the building acted as both a showcase for what future architecture could be and a stage from which one was facilitated to better appreciate the natural surroundings.  It is indicative that over 5,000 young learners came to the school to study the ecology of the region. The institution’s mission was to instill in them the idea that a human-made structure can be a self-sustaining part of nature. Students could gather around a central hearth in the evening, have access to panoramic exterior views, and see through glazed windows the available renewable power stored in the building’s batteries. One could argue that the centre not only attempted to “teach” eco-buildings and nature to the students, but also formulate these lessons into metaphysical notions of community, ritual, awe, and the dream of a utopia of self-sufficiency.  

Another ecologically purposed element was the prominently located water and sewage treatment facility, called the “Living Machine”. [3]  It was designed to recycle 800 gallons of water per day that ran through 17 cylindrical canisters, ending up in an indoor pond with fish and plant life. However, the water was never reused as there were no funds to test its purity. [1]

The project had been part of a response to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, which had brought renewed attention to direct environmental engagement with osmotic energy approaches. [4] In that same vein but from a user’s perspective, the long-time principal of the school, Chuck Hopkins, stated:

“It's important to get kids out of the city to a place like this. You can always bring a bit of nature into the classroom, but it'll be only a small piece of the whole. It's like trying to understand a car by looking at a carburetor in class… Experiencing is an extremely important part of knowing. You can't love something you don't know. A lot of kids in downtown Toronto never see nature. What trees they see are planted, the grass they see is cut … It makes it difficult for them to understand what a city requires to survive."[5]

In spite of the entire complex’s closure and abandonment in 2003 due to budget cuts [2][5], the Boyne River Ecology Centre remains an important paradigm of architecture in Canada that attempts to concentrate and display the virtues of ecological design and ecological education in an ideal natural setting.  It remains to be known whether the cohorts of children that experienced the centre came out more knowledgeable about nature and the harnessing of its energy, about what constitutes an ideal habitation, or simply having the hope that one day some of the elements of this perfectly situated building could be transferred to the urban centres most of them live in. 

[1] Boake, Terri Meyer. “Boyne River Ecology Centre Case Study " http://www.tboake.com/366_research/boyne_essay.pdf.

[2] “Boyne River Natural Science School — ‘Mothballed’." Toronto District School Board, http://web.archive.org/web/20030421104527/http://schools.tdsb.on.ca/boyne/.

[3] Ledger, Bronwen. “Eco-Building at the Boyne." Canadian Architect 39, no. 6 (June 1994 1994): 15-19.

[4] Mannell, Steven. “Environmental Architecture." In Canadian Modern Architecture: A Fifty Year Retrospective (1967-2017), edited by Elsa Lam, Graham Livesey and Kenneth Frampton. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2019.

[5] Smith, Cameron. “Empty School Mocks Toronto's Green Pledges." Toronto Star, 12 April 2008.

Project Title: Boyne River Ecology Centre
Douglas Pollard
Shelburne, ON (NW of Toronto)

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