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History in the Making: CIGI Campus

The City of Waterloo is a dynamic city. From its conception, Waterloo quickly evolved from an agricultural area to a bustling industrial city. Factories, distilleries and warehouses had a hand in shaping Waterloo’s urban fabric and there is still evidence of that industrial history in the City’s distinctive architecture, such as the former Seagram barrel warehouses (now Seagram lofts) on Father David Bauer Drive and the Button Factory on Regina Street S.

The urban fabric of the City is experiencing another transformation. Today, when one walks around the City there seems to be a plethora of new developments. Medium to high-rise buildings have begun to pierce the City’s skyline. Many new buildings house Waterloo’s growing knowledge and technology industries as well as new and expanding educational institutions.  Together with the City’s century old industrial and commercial buildings, these contemporary buildings are creating a new heritage for future residents of the City.  One building in particular – the Centre for International Governance Innovation building (CIGI) at 67 Erb Street West – deserves special recognition, not only for its individual architectural design, but also for its sensitivity to and enhancement of its historic setting on the former Seagram Distillery lands.

Understanding CIGI’s Architecture

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) is a global “Think Tank” that conducts research, analysis and policy development for international governance. They aim to improve international economies, security, politics and laws. The organization has collaborated with the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA) to fulfill this goal.

The CIGI Campus began construction in 2009 and officially opened its doors in late 2011. The lands were previously owned by the City of Waterloo who donated it to the organization under a 99-year lease. KPMB Architects, a world-renowned architecture firm, designed the building. The building design borrows from the traditional academic quadrangle style that centres on an open air courtyard, much like the central garden of a medieval monastery.  The “cloister” or covered walk typical of a monastery is represented in the CIGI building as a glass corridor that runs along the perimeter of the courtyard. A stone bell tower is positioned on the northern side of the building.

Central courtyard design used for CIGI (left) was inspired by traditional academic quadrangle architectural style found in medieval and later educational institutions such as Merton College, University of Oxford (right).

Although inspired by traditional architecture, the building is truly modern in its interpretation and construction. Reinforced concrete slabs, known as “Bubbledeck”, were used for the construction of the building. This involves displacing 30% of the concrete by creating air bubbles to create thinner and lighter structures which reduces the overall weight and total concrete used. The front façade of the building consists of large and numerous windows that filter natural light into the building and reduce reliance on artificial lighting.


View of 57 Erb Street W from CIGI’s front plaza.

Distinctive in its contemporary, minimalist style, the CIGI building is also designed to be compatible with the neighbouring historic industrial buildings. The building pays homage to its historic surroundings through the use of traditional building materials such as concrete, wood, glass and stone.  The buff stone exterior echos the yellow clay brick of the surrounding Seagram buildings, while the height and proportions of the building are sensitive to the adjacent former Seagram barrel warehouse at 57 Erb Street West.  A new view that highlights and enhances the west facing multi-windowed facade of 57 Erb Street West is created as a result of the CIGI building’s setback from Erb Street West.

The interior of the building consists of many open and bright spaces. Natural materials such as wood and stone are used to clad interior walls and ceilings of the ground and upper floors. The building includes a large auditorium where lectures and public events are hosted. All floors overlook the central courtyard.

The architects studied pedestrian behaviour and pathways while designing the courtyard. They aimed to create a social space and vibrant sanctuary.  Landscape artist Richard Fleischner had a hand in the design. His artwork portrays the 19 moments of progress in international governance, represented by copper markers distributed according to their geographical location on an unseen map of the world.  The courtyard also features a 36m water feature and several species of vegetation.


CIGI Campus Courtyard. Photo by Tom Arban.

Site History

The property upon which CIGI building sits was once part of the larger Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Distillery founded by Joseph E. Seagram. The CIGI building occupies the space where a number of multi-purpose buildings once stood that housed key functions for the Seagram Distillery, such as grain storage, processing and distilling. The warehouse situated at 57 Erb Street West, immediately east of CIGI, was a prominent part of the distillery. The warehouse, now designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, consists of yellow brick with shuttered windows that were used to vent the fumes from the ageing spirits. The warehouse stored 6000 to 7000 oak barrels of liquor before they were exported to neighbouring cities.


Seagram Bonded Warehouse and Museum (1984).

Seagram was born in Fisher’s Mills, an area now known as Cambridge, Ontario. He moved to Waterloo to work for William Hespeler and George Randall in their flour mill, “Granite Mills”. Granite Mills had a small subsidiary distillery known as the “Waterloo Distillery” where Seagram learned the technique and process of distilling and aging liquor. Seagram eventually became the sole proprietor of the company in 1883 renaming it to Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Distillery. Seagram was also a prominent politician. He was the Councilor of the South Ward in the City of Waterloo in 1881. He was also a Conservative Member of Parliament from 1896 to 1908.

Subsequent to Seagram’s death in 1919, Samuel Bronfman, a prominent Canadian businessman, bought the distillery and amalgamated it with Distillers Corporation Limited. The distillery officially closed in 1990. A devastating fire in 1993 destroyed many of the buildings, including those in the general location of the CIGI building.  A Seagram museum operating out of 57 Erb Street West continued for a few more years until closing in 1997.


Oak Barrel Display (2009).

The property at 67 Erb Street West remained vacant for a number of years. A fenced stack of oak barrels was displayed on the property until construction for the CIGI Campus began in 2009. Some of these barrels and many of the museum’s artifacts are now located in the Seagram Collection in the City of Waterloo Museum.

Building Future Heritage

The CIGI Campus is not only an important contributor to Waterloo’s rich tradition of research and innovation, it is also sets the bar for contemporary buildings that will inevitably form tomorrow’s heritage. The building displays a high level of artistic and design merit for its energy conscious materials and design, its integration of public and private spaces, and its use of natural light and materials that give it a warm and welcoming feeling. The building has won several design awards, including the Governor General’s Award for Architecture in 2014.

Designing new buildings that reflect contemporary uses, needs and aesthetics while paying homage to and respect for adjacent historic buildings is not an easy task. “Compatible” design is often misinterpreted to mean “sameness” which can result in new buildings that create a false “old timey” appearance that feel inauthentic and contrived. On the other hand, contemporary building designs that ignore their surrounding context can sometimes dominate, overpower or detract from adjacent historic buildings and create a discordant overall design.

The architects of the CIGI building avoided these pitfalls.  Now 5 years old, CIGI has become a fixture of the Uptown, and sets an example for all of us to follow as we build tomorrow’s heritage.

by Shannon Spencer

2 Comments Post a comment

    Very informative and well written.


    February 17, 2017

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