Beyond Big Box: Mill Woods Branch Library, Seniors’ Centre and Multicultural Facility, Edmonton, Alberta
PROJECT Mill Woods Branch Library, Seniors’ Centre and Multicultural Facility, Edmonton, Alberta
ARCHITECTS HCMA Architecture + Design and Dub Architects Ltd. in joint venture
TEXT Cynthia Dovell
PHOTOS Ema Peter
North America is filled with suburban shopping plazas. These spaces, geared toward automobiles, have no sidewalks and nothing to make people feel comfortable outside of their cars. The Mill Woods Town Centre plaza in the southern suburbs of Edmonton is one of these non-places. It contains a half empty 1970s-era mall surrounded by desolate asphalt and big box stores—all at least one parking lot away.
Luckily, the new Mill Woods Library, Seniors’ and Multicultural Centre by HCMA and Dub Architects takes this landscape and stitches a human-scale, social fabric back into its heart. Architects Darryl Condon, FRAIC, and Michael Dub, MRAIC, recall how the site in the middle of the plaza’s parking lot was once a grassy island. During initial site visits, they saw desire lines leading across the grass between an adjacent transit hub— the site’s major redeeming factor—and the various commercial and office buildings at the perimeter.
These informal trails made their way into the permanent urban design and landscaping of the new site, marked by flanking rows of native aspen trees. It’s an attitude to placemaking—working from the clues and opportunities at hand, however fleeting they may be—that pervades the project and gives it a human-oriented sensitivity.
The placemaking approach begins with the building’s unlikely pairing of programs, a quirk of municipal funding opportunities: it contains both a local branch of the Edmonton Public Library and a seniors’ multicultural activity centre. Several years ago, funding and the site had been slated for the library, once located within the mall. When it turned out that the local community was also in dire need of an expanded seniors facility, City Council mandated the pairing. The program is reflected in the massing of the building—a rectangular mass that stands out as a distinct volume on the flat site. It’s intended as an inversion of heaviness and lightness, solid and void. Black metal clads the upper volume of the rectangle, which houses the seniors’ centre, while the bottom consists of curtain wall glazing that rises and falls along the façade, according to the program needs of the library.
From the outside, the glazing at the north and south corners rises high to give the building a welcoming appearance. Landscaped paths funnel visitors to the main entry, located at their apex. It is marked
not with a canopy, as one might expect, but instead with a vibrant blue-tinted glazed vestibule.
The interior of the library furthers the study of contrasts that the building parti sets up. Expansion and compression, loud and quiet, powerful and intimate, mass and lightness—all of these elements can be felt
in a sequence that both calms and excites.
Overall, the library is one large open space punctuated by a number of small, distinct activity areas. Generous, light-filled reading rooms occupy opposing corners, adjacent to a line of structure that crosses the building diagonally between them.
Smaller black-clad study boxes, reminiscent of the building’s exterior, are strategically arrayed to frame a variety of spaces on all sides. Inside the boxes, one can feel a sense of privacy while still remaining connected to the larger area outside.
The architects worked closely with the Edmonton Arts Council to integrate public art pieces into two of the study boxes. Phantásien, a double-mirror installation created by realities:united, was commissioned specifically for the Mill Woods Library. Loosely inspired by the Michael Ende novel The Neverending Story, the piece creates a vibrantly coloured infinity effect, providing a surreal space for work, study and imagination. In contrast, a bronzed cast iron sculpture weighing over 10,000 lbs by Montreal artist Jordi Bonet, acquired from a different library in the system, was anchored directly onto a separate box. Both pieces lend a distinctly playful and introspective quality to the space.
The building’s rectangular shape, which is so present on the exterior, is virtually imperceptible inside. The ceiling consists of angled planes that start high at the two corners, then lower in a series of layers as they move to the centre, following structural lines across the building. According to the architects, the design intention is to “disrupt the box” and emphasize the interface between the upper and lower volumes. They further broke up the volume by playing with the ground floor plane. The east and west corners, housing community and reading rooms, are lowered several steps, sinking them into a surrounding landscape of tall prairie grasses.
Similarly, out-of-the-box thinking can be seen in the Edmonton Public Library’s innovative operations. Mill Woods Library has everything modern—elements that all libraries desire, but that not many have the budget or courage to take on. The circulation desk is virtually nonexistent, consisting of a few small tables on wheels that can be moved where needed. Visitors can walk a full 360 degrees around the area such that there is no inside and outside; you are always “inside” with the librarians. If staff area needs are further reduced in the future, the enclosed areas that house administrative functions can easily be repurposed and converted into social spaces.
A second door from the main entry vestibule leads to elevators and widened stairs accessing the seniors’ centre. One can immediately tell that you are in a distinct place. In contrast to the black, white and grey hues of the library, the seniors’ centre design incorporates a warm wood palette. A stunning milled wood mosaic—an abstraction of the Canadian prairie landscape by artist Destiny Swiderski—greets users, forming the backdrop to a living room-like lounge. Adjacent, a corridor wide enough to accommodate seating extends to the east and west ends of the centre, flanked by program rooms for art, games and other activities. Light beams in from both ends of this corridor, and additional glazing peeks down into the library, offering unexpected views. Above, a line of clerestory windows travels alongside the diagonal structure to let light deep into the centre of the building.
The new facility is a huge contrast to the seniors’ centre’s previous location—a cramped one-room space in a nearby community centre. Part of the design team’s mandate involved imagining a new program for an anticipated, but undefined, larger membership. Pearl Bennett, executive director of the seniors’ centre, likens operating it to the experience of wearing a new dress—she’s getting tons of positive feedback, but is still getting used to the fit and is building confidence on how to maximize its potential.
There is no question in anyone’s mind with regard to the success of the building. Even before the official opening, Mill Woods Library received 30,000 visitors, and it anticipates half a million visits each year. Membership at the seniors centre has historically been capped at 250 people; the new centre boasts 600 members within just a few months of opening.
Both the library and seniors centre are proving to be vibrant, active places. Says Bennett, “The building is iconically beautiful. Its openness is so welcoming that it inspires people to be open and welcoming themselves. In the evenings, people come to sit and enjoy the space. They may not necessarily participate in the activities, but their presence in this space automatically makes them part of the community.” This is the stuff of placemaking that we architects all aspire to create in our work.
Cynthia Dovell, MRAIC, is the principal architect at AVID Architecture. She sits on the Edmonton Arts Council’s public art board, is part of the Edmonton Urban Design Awards Committee, and teaches architectural design studios for the RAIC Centre for Architecture at Athabasca University.