A New Chapter: Toronto Public Library Albert Campbell Branch, Scarborough, Ontario
LGA Architectural Partners’ renovation of a Scarborough library is a sensitive remake of Fairfield and DuBois’ 1971 original.
PROJECT Toronto Public Library Albert Campbell Branch, Scarborough, Ontario
ARCHITECT LGA Architectural Partners
TEXT Emily Macrae
PHOTOS Doublespace Photography
There are two benches at the entrance of the Toronto Public Library’s recently renovated Albert Campbell branch. One is nestled inside the door, another sits just outside. These subtle seating options offer library patrons the choice of sheltering from the weather while waiting for a ride, or perching outside, where they can also catch wi-fi after hours. It’s a sensitive response to the many roles that this library plays in a car-oriented neighbourhood. Taken together, the benches signal the attention to detail and commitment to flexible use that define LGA Architectural Partners’ renovation of the 50-year-old building.
The original library—a strident, brutalist composition in grey concrete block and fire-truck-red metal curves—was designed by Fairfield and DuBois Architects and opened in 1971. After a three-year renovation, the library now boasts a much enlarged area for public use, a new abundance of natural light, and improved accessibility and safety.
Library staff found it difficult to imagine how the modernist building, with its narrow stairwells and sparse windows, could be transformed, and the library originally believed that an expansion or replacement would be necessary. But careful study by LGA identified that 25 percent of the back-of-house spaces could be repurposed for public use, and imagined how existing motifs could be developed to enhance wayfinding within the building. It’s a bold renovation with beautiful results. LGA restores dignity to a public building that serves a diverse community.
Choosing renovation over replacement was an opportunity to realize environmental benefits and make a broader point about the potential of reuse. Renovation cut the embodied carbon of the project, while the concrete shell was an obvious candidate for improved insulation. Says LGA partner Brock James, “You just cannot ignore the carbon capital that existing buildings represent.”
To recover the use of the previously buried ground floor, the renovation lowered the topography of the site. Instead of entering on the second floor into a more compressed building, visitors now descend through a ramped garden to enter through an area that was formerly a mechanical room.
From the new entrance, library users can see straight through to the back of the building, where LGA added a window overlooking a schoolyard. Approaching the rear, interior glazing exposes a previously limited-access double-height community room. Moving from the front doors towards the back window, it felt somewhat jarring to see the floor fall away to reveal a basement below. But for James, the high-ceilinged room is one of the “gems” that guided LGA’s approach to repurposing the library.
The formerly subterranean room has now been turned into a spacious, light-flooded atrium for teen programming and special events. The creation of this space hinted at the potential of the building and confirmed the need to introduce light and create connections across the interior. To do the latter, an undulating ceiling bridges the ground floor and the basement, then ripples upward to the second and third floors. The original building also featured a curved ceiling—red accents throughout the renovated library nod to the previous metal slats—but the new ceiling is defined by wood. Thin strips in blond tones bring warmth to the concrete building, and create a unifying motif across all four floors.
In the renovated children’s area, just past the main entrance, the ceiling’s wave geometry takes risks and reaps rewards. Peaks and valleys are designed to accommodate mechanical elements. At points, the ceiling dips to just 2.4 metres high, but the waves of wood create a sense of space on a human scale that offsets the legacy of brutalist monumentalism.
Relocating the children’s area and teen programming responded to public feedback to create zones for library users of different ages. Continuing up the stairs from the main floor, older generations are welcomed by ample seating next to magazine racks, public computer stations, counters for laptops, and glassed-in study rooms. The area is bright throughout the day, thanks to large windows added to the east and west façades. Teens have additional space to sprawl on the west side of the second floor, and the third floor offers quieter seating.
Yet even the calmest corners of the third floor never feel isolated from the rest of the library: the renovation created clear sightlines across the building and between the floors. The Toronto Public Library has shifted towards lower bookshelves, which make it easier to reach books and provide for greater visibility, and this branch is no exception.
Reinforcing the importance of sightlines, LGA cut away the second floor to create a clear view of most of the library from the ground floor entrance. Anyone entering the building is greeted by library staff at the main service desk, and the second floor service desk is also visible from the ground floor. This approach makes the library easier for community members to navigate, while also increasing safety for library staff.
Another safety improvement is the redesign of the washrooms. The former stall washrooms, perceived unsafe in public feedback, have been replaced with nine individual-use washrooms throughout the building, including one on each level that provides barrier-free access.
Throughout, the renovation pays tribute to the library’s past. Marks on the concrete floor show the location of the original entrance. Tonal differences on the walls reveal the previous ceiling geometry. Most importantly, the spirit of the library’s original design radiates throughout the reinvented spaces. This deference to change allows the library to continue to evolve. Staff are still refining plans for the rooftop terrace and an Indigenous smudging room, but community members have already made the library their own: a teen sneaks snacks by the computers, a display case shares traditions associated with Bengali New Year, and a kid clambers over a reading nook.
From the front door to the back corners, this branch embodies how far libraries have come from being repositories for books. The flexibility and elegance of the design also shows how much is possible when library staff, neighbours of all ages and architects collaborate to renew a neighbourhood institution.
Emily Macrae is a writer and organizer working to build accessible digital and urban environments.
CLIENT Toronto Public Library | ARCHITECT TEAM Brock James (MRAIC), Daniel Comerford, Allison Janes (MRAIC), Charlotte Cossette, José Castel-Branco (MRAIC), Kara Burman, Nevil Wood (MRAIC), Charlotte Cossette, Natalia Semenova, Billy Chung, Eveline Lam | STRUCTURAL Blackwell | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Enso Systems Inc. | CONTRACTOR Pre-Eng Contracting | LANDSCAPE Aboud and Associates | INDIGENOUS CONSULTANT Trina Moyan, Bell and Bernard Ltd. | INDIGENOUS GARDEN DESIGN AND INSTALLATION Miinikaan Innovation and Design | CIVIL EMC Group | CODE David Hine Engineering | BUILDING SCIENCE RDH | ACOUSTICS Thornton Tomasetti | A/V Smith + Andersen | CIVIL Solucore | MURAL WALL Red Urban Nation Artist Collective | AREA 2,370 m2 | BUDGET $21.4 M | COMPLETION Fall 2022
ENERGY USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) 269 ekWh/m2/year