Calgary's Audacious New Library

By Richard White, September 5, 2014 (An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald).

The idea of a new iconic central library has been around for decades (Vancouver got its iconic library in 1995, as did Denver and Seattle in 2004.  In fact, it was acknowledged at the Calgary Public Library Foundation’s preview that one of the reasons Councilor Druh Farrell originally decided to run for council in 2001 was to foster the development of a new central library.

She and others have been championing the idea tireless and today she is Council’s representative on the Calgary Public Library Board. Nobody can say the Library Board or Council has rushed into this project, it has been a slow painful process for some and for others a strategic struggle.

Finally the wait is over. 

Vancouver's iconic Central Library has been the envy of many Calgarians since it was built in 1995.

Vancouver's iconic Central Library has been the envy of many Calgarians since it was built in 1995.

Think Global Act Local

The new library's design team of Snohetta and DIALOG was announced in November 2013 and since then has been working hard to develop a design that will capture the attention of both Calgarians and the world.  It was a good choice as Calgary’s DIALOG team is headed up by Rob Adamson, who was born in Calgary, got his architectural degree from the University of Calgary and has spent his entire career in Calgary – he can obviously speak to Calgary’s sense of place.  His projects include the impressive TELUS Spark and the new international wing of the Calgary Airport. 

In addition, Fred Valentine one of Calgary’s most respected architects (architect for the NEXEN building) has also been advising the Library’s steering committee and Board with respect to design issues and opportunities. 

Craig Dykers heads up the Snohetta team in New York City who bring to the table a wealth of international library experience including the award winning Bibliotheca Alexandria.

The Design

The design team for Calgary’s new central library make no bones about it they have an audacious (their words not mine) vision: to create the best library in the world.  They were quick to that creating the best library is more than just about design, it is about being “right for this place and time.”  Craig Dykers of Snohetta argued, “Libraries are not about the building, the books or the information but about the people.”  He also noted that the best libraries must evolve with time and Calgary's new library must be able to do just that.

The inspiration and rationale for the design of the new library as unveiled at the Calgary Library Foundations’ Preview September 3rd and again at a sold out presentation (1,200 attendees) at the TELUS Convention Centre on September 4th is very complex.  Everything from the curve of the underground LRT tunnel to the Chinook arch were mentioned as factors influencing the building’s conceptual design.  

Rendering of the shape and massing of the proposed new downtown Library.

Rendering of the shape and massing of the proposed new downtown Library.

Diagram illustrating the shape of a drift boat. 

Diagram illustrating the shape of a drift boat. 

Shape of a drift boat from all sides

Shape of a drift boat from all sides

Drift Boat?

What struck me most when looking at the rendering is that it looks like a boat.  At first I thought of a canoe but then it hit me – it looks like the drift boats that are used by fly fishermen on the Bow River. These boats have a flat bottoms with flared sides, a flat bow and pointed stern. They are designed to handle rough water and to allow fishermen to stand up in the boat, even in flowing water. Whether intentional or unintentional there are some interesting links to Calgary's sense of place (rivers) and culture (recreation).

Rendering of the new library's 3rd Street SE facade.

Rendering of the 3rd Street SE facade in the summer with the Municipal Building on the left. 

Rendering of the 3rd Street SE facade in the summer with the Municipal Building on the left. 

Yin Yang on 3rd Street SE

I was also struck by how similar the massing is to the Municipal Building that will run parallel to the new library on the west side of 3rd Street SE. Both are block-long horizontal mid-rise buildings in a downtown that is dominated by its verticalness.  Inside both buildings will have a floor to ceiling atriums as their dominant design feature.

The Municipal Building’s design is unique with a stepped façade on the west side, an obvious reference to the foothills and the mountains and a flat east façade, a design metaphor for the prairies. Dykers indicated he thought what defined our city’s unique sense of place is its position between the mountains and the prairies.

While nobody said it, I think there could be a nice “yin and yang” design materializing between the angular Municipal Building and the curved new library. I think there are also links with the design and massing of the new National Music Centre. The synergies between the three buildings could create something special from an urban placemaking perspective.

The façade of the proposed new library has a repeated geometric pattern that is in the shape of a house or shed. It creates an obvious scientific, mathematical or engineering visual impression.

This too might be appropriate as Paul McIntyre Royston, President & CEO of the Calgary Library Foundation announced the new library will have a Research Chair - a first for a public library in Canada.  He spoke of the new library as being an “incubator for research and ideas.” He also went on to say “all great cities have great libraries” and it was the team’s goal to create a great library for Calgarians and he wasn’t afraid to reiterate that vision is to “create the best library in the world”

 

The Municipal Building is a massive blue glass triangle sitting on top of a concrete rectangle. The historic sandstone city hall in the bottom right corner is still used as offices for Mayor, Council and meeting rooms. The building makes obvious references to the foothills, the big blue prairie sky and the powerful forces of faults, folds and shifting tectonic plates that formed the Canadian Rockies. 

The west facade of the Municipal Building alludes to Calgary's sense of place i.e. where the prairies meet the mountains; the triangular shape and stepped facade creates a unique shape. The glass facade creates wonderful reflections of the historic sandstone city hall building to the north east. 

From the northeast the Municipal Building has an intriguing profile as a result of its triangular shape that will contrast nicely with the propose new library's curved shape at the same corner.

From the northeast the Municipal Building has an intriguing profile as a result of its triangular shape that will contrast nicely with the propose new library's curved shape at the same corner.

This view of the Municipal Building from the east will disappear when the new library is built. 

This view of the Municipal Building from the east will disappear when the new library is built. 

Last Page

I like the fact the design is not something twisted, cantilevered or cubist, which seems to be all the rage these days. The shape and skin are intriguing with a sense of playfulness without being too silly.  I expect only time will tell if this is the right building for Calgary - today and in the future. 

The design of the Calgary’s new Central Library is off to a good start. I am glad it isn't imitative of other architecture as is so often the case in Calgary.

I hope that as the design evolves it will just keep getting better. Kudos to the design team, the Library and CMLC staff! 

Denver's Central Library designed by Michael Graves, in 1995. 

Seattle's Central Library designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, in 2004. 

Seattle's Central Library designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, in 2004.