Calgary: Central Library or Downtown Community Centre?

Downtown Vancouver has one. Seattle has one. So too does Salt Lake City. And soon, Calgary will have one! A fancy schmancy signature downtown library designed by a star international architectural firm. 

In all three cities, the idea was to build a landmark central library as a tool for urban renewal.  And in all three cases, it has worked with the libraries now surrounded by trendy new condos, office buildings, shops, and restaurants. 

So for Calgary, is it a case of “if you build it they will come” or a case of “keeping up with the Jones?”

Libraries as Community Centres

In today’s world, libraries are less about the books (yes, they still have some) and more about being a vibrant community center where people come to read (yes, people still do that), use computers and attend programs, lectures, readings, movies, concerts and other events. 

For young suburban families, these mega libraries are fun adventure as the kids get to go downtown (aka the tall city, which is what my 3-year old nephew called it) often getting there by a train ride. What kid doesn't like to ride the train?

In a stroke of genius and as a hint of what it to come, Calgary’s current downtown library has parked a real (but modified) fire engine on the main floor of the library.  Kids can dress-up as firemen, attend one of the many story times or sit and read in the driver’s seat. It has become so busy the circulation area had to be reconfigured.  For families, it doesn’t get much better than this.

New is better?

Calgary’s new $245-million library will have 66% more usable space than the existing central library and will contain 600,000 books and other items compared to the current library’s 390,000.  Calgary currently boasts one of the busiest library systems in North America; the addition of signature central library will surely enhance that. Or will it? Only time will tell. 

While the new National Music Centre is a welcome addition to downtown and East Village, it is the new library, scheduled to open in 2018 that is destined to become the heart of East Village and perhaps even Calgary’s entire City Centre.

Avant-garde Design

While Calgary’s new library may not have a fire engine inside, the shape of the building has been said by some to resemble a giant bathtub toy boat.  For others, it might remind them of the float boats used on the Bow River for fishing.

Designed by Snohetta, an internationally acclaimed architectural firm headquartered in Oslo Norway specializing in library design and Calgary’s own DIALOG, architects of Telus Spark, the building promises to be stunning.  On their website the architects say the design was inspired by the nearby foothills. Personally, I don’t see that as the building has very sharp edges as opposed to the soft rounded form of the foothills. 

The façade or skin of the building is very intriguing with its interlocking geometric shapes, many looking like little houses. To me, it is like the skin of snake; the building even looks a bit snake-like from the northern edge where the C-Train emerges from the mouth-like tunnel underneath the building. However, the architects say snowdrifts inspired the façade’s geometric patterns.   

The façade utilizes both clear, pastel coloured and white glass that will create a continually changing dramatic light effect - day and night, inside and out. The interior of the building will be dominated by a huge atrium with huge wood-clad arches that reference our warm wonderful, Chinook Arch winds, creating a very dramatic and inviting meeting and hangout place.  

Last Word

While every attempt has been made to animate the streetscape and create a “welcoming” public realm around the building, the challenge of building over the LRT tracks has made that difficult. I am also concerned, like the Municipal Building (Blue Monster) to the west; it will be more intimidating than welcoming.  It is hard to create big block-long buildings and make them inviting without lots of public space around them. I really hope I am wrong.

The computer renderings of the building are very seductive. We can only hope the real thing will be as stunning.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the March 2017, Calgary's Condo Living Magazine.  All photos are from Snohetta website. 

Library Fun Facts:

  • 2016 was busier than ever with 6.3 million in-person visits
  • Chromebooks were signed out more than 100,000 times
  • Circulation stands at approximately 16 million
  • Circulation for all electronic resources for 2016 is 2.4 million (increasing year over year – up approx. 100,000 from 2015)
  • We added 250,000 members since eliminating the $12 fee; bringing our current membership to 570,000+
  • In 2015, with $7.4 million raised by the Calgary Public Library Foundation, we broke the record for funds raised annually for a Canadian library.

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