Call Of The Wild

PROJECT Tommy Douglas Library, Burnaby, British Columbia; North Vancouver City Library, North Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECTS Diamond And Schmitt Architects in joint venture with CEI Architecture Planning Interiors, Architects
TEXT Adele Weder
PHOTOS Tom Arban

You see, I don’t believe that libraries should be drab places where people sit in silence, and that’s been the main reason for our policy of employing wild animals as librarians .
–Graham Chapman, portraying a library chairman in Monty Python’s Flying Circus

The North American library industry has yet to employ a gorilla as its chief librarian, as per Monty Python’s vintage skit, but perhaps it’s only a matter of time. Once a sanctuary for hushed reading and studying, the conventional public library has morphed into a high-octane combination of penny arcade and community centre. Library-goers bypass T.S. Eliot in favour of Hollywood movie DVDs and internet-ready computer terminals, often punctuating their visits with whoops and chatter. Some may cringe, but others–including library architects themselves–are championing the shift.

“Libraries are becoming community centres,” avers Jack Diamond, “and the upside is huge. It’s wonderful to be working on this new generation of libraries.”

Diamond and Schmitt Architects is a firm renowned for creating visually understated buildings that work exceptionally well. Their landmark projects, such as the Metropolitan Toronto YMCA and the Opera House, are not flamboyantly iconic, but both are complex projects that have earned the acclaim of their primary users. That approach also applies to the firm’s two new libraries in the Vancouver area. Both are examples of very good architecture and great urbanism. Whether either is a good library depends on how you define a library.

As the end goal shifts from education to entertainment, the architectural ramifications are huge. Most obviously, library architecture must now strike the precarious balance between facilitating social interaction without enabling utter chaos. The North Vancouver City Library reflects and abets this seismic shift in concept. Built on a gentle slope in the city’s Central Lonsdale neighbourhood, this three-storey edifice has already become a hive of activity and a magnet for the community. Outside its front entrance, the stepped concrete plaza and water feature hint at the ebullience within.

Surrounded by architectural banality, the Diamond and Schmitt faade stands out like a beacon, with its streamlined glass-and-steel grille defined by brise-soleils. The architectural language suggests this is a building for our time, technologically savvy and eco-charged. And it is ecologically ambitious, with a solar-panel water-heating system and geoexchange cooling, among other features.

Located a block away from Lonsdale Avenue, the main shopping-and-dining spine of North Vancouver, the Library is nonetheless close enough–and powerful enough–to generate a critical mass of urban vitality in this drowsy, low-density suburb. The espresso bar embedded in the building next to the front entrance is doing a briskly synergetic business with its host building: destination library-goers drop in for sustenance, but also destination caf customers might just happen to drop in the library on impulse, after they finish their lattes. Actually, make that during their lattes. Another paradigm shift in the modern library is the abolition of the long-held taboo against eating and drinking in the library.

A series of primary geometric shapes define the interior plan–two large cubic window wells, a series of demi-cylindrical shelving units, a square cedar-slat bulkhead and the bold coloured walls of the foyer. One half of each of the upper floors house a section of conventional linear walls of books, the open shelves and the stacks. The curved millwork enhances the dynamic flow of the spaces: kids famously love to run around in circles, and the kids in this library run at high speed, often squawking or shrieking.

Adults perambulate the circular millwork and window wells too, but for different reasons and at a different speed. From one side of the window well one can see the mountain view beckoning from across the square chasm; conversely, from the club chairs that line a stretch of the fully glazed wall, one can watch people perusing books, chatting, gesticulating, or charmingly goofing off. These days, just 40 percent of the North Vancouver Public Library’s circulation involves books; the rest is generated by loans of DVDs and other products. And of the browsers who lope in and out all day, more than half are there not to borrow anything at all but rather to use the computers, hold informal meetings, read magazines, or just hang out and play. The previous mainstay of library activity–silent reading–is now such a rarefied activity that the design incorporates a separate “quiet study room” plus a pair of “tutorial rooms” for those users that need to get away from the madding crowd.

The tutorial rooms are each the size of a walk-in closet, with a glass wall that evokes the sense of being in a pet kennel or a prisoner’s interrogation chamber. But deputy chief librarian Wai-Lin Chee admits that they’re hugely popular–“We should have built more of them,” she says. But that prompts thought of another possibility: if they’re so popular, is it possible that quiet-seekers are actually the silent majority among these marauding noisemakers?

The concept of a library as hushed sanctuary has been usurped by its newly important function as palliative for urban loneliness. Diamond himself compares the North American library’s potential role to that of the pub in Britain or the beach in California: the one place you can go by yourself, with no plan or purpose, and instantly be with people. His epiphany was when he was talking to his client at his Jewish Community Centre in Manhattan, who told him that the essence of the design brief was to make a place where you have no reason to go. “That was hugely insightful to me,” relays Diamond.

The advantage of a community library, says Diamond, is that you can appear to have a reason to go. The ennui-stricken urbanite strolls into the welcoming entrance of a library to look for a book. Once inside, this contemporary flneur can find company and conversation, or just the reassuring presence of other human bodies. “You can masquerade at the library,” says Diamond, “and it’s better than Starbucks, because it’s not commercial.”

The spatial sequences in the North Vancouver City Library lend themselves well to this kind of masquerade. With just the northern half of each floor dedicated (largely) to stacks and the southern half given over to computer terminals, club chairs, and those low-walled window wells, no one need fear being sandwiched in between rows of books.

The staff areas at the North Vancouver City Library are considerably quieter than the public areas, but share the luxury of daylight streaming into every working area; even the otherwise pallid sorting room at the back has a window that brings in daylight. Clearly, it is a project whose designers have paid generous attention to detail and comfort in every department.

There’s just one problem, it seems: the deputy librarian confirms that noise levels at the library have been drawing many complaints from visitors. The two open window wells provide key ventilation and lighting elements for the “green” aspect of the building. But the open wells allow not only daylight but streams of noise to travel up and down through the three floors. The library administration is now looking at ways to seal off the window wells, most likely by affixing full glazing on all four sides of both wells.

But if you head out to Burnaby, another suburb of Vancouver where Diamond and Schmitt has designed yet another freshly built library, you will find another paradigm. Completed earlier this ye
ar, the Tommy Douglas Library sits on a derelict corner of the Kingsway thoroughfare. Kitty-corner from a big-box home improvement store, this library is bereft of the sea-to-sky view that backdrops its more high-profile sibling to the north. Instead of mountains and ocean, the glazed faade offers an elegant man-made backdrop of translucent colour bands.

Diamond notes that the Tommy Douglas Library is a smaller-scale library with a less ambitious purpose. Unlike the North Vancouver project, there was no attempt to generate a city centre in this bleak corner of town punctuated by a pawnbroker and a grotty adult bookstore. Diamond planned the canopied front entrance area to provide a measure of security and comfort for community members waiting for the bus. But there is no grand piazza here; no outdoor public space to speak of, and not even an espresso bar.

The automatic doors slide open like airport entrances. One steps in, braced for the same cacophony, and all is quiet. A cleanly detailed, simple L-shaped open interior presents itself. The furniture and millwork are basic: ordinary white acoustic ceiling tiles, for example, rather than the more elaborate-looking cedar slats of North Vancouver. A few mobile bookshelves offer bestsellers and audiobooks. People are talking but in the deferential low-volume tone of library conversation. Even the children’s section is ethereally quiet. A row of pre-teen boys sit at bar-height tables, huddled over computers, or with their notebooks open. A few metres away, a woman sits in a chaise longue in the children’s section, her expression pensive and inscrutable; on the floor beside her sits a young girl thumbing through a stack of books. In response to my reporterly query, the woman, Rene Li, relays that she’s an immigrant from Thailand, and comes to this library regularly at the behest of her eight-year-old daughter, the girl now poring through an illustrated history of science.

Are Burnaby residents really more subdued than North Vancouverites, or is something else at work here? The program is the same; the architectural firm is the same; the user demographics are similar–Burnaby has a less affluent community but, as with most Canadian suburbs, a heavy percentage of immigrant families. The key difference is the actual physical configuration. The plan, scale and physical environs at Tommy Douglas seem to aid and abet reading and studying in communal peace.

Jack Diamond didn’t plan the Tommy Douglas to be exempt from the rowdy community-centre atmosphere; to a certain extent, it just turned out that way. A smaller scale and budget, with no mandate to add to the urbanism of the neighbourhood. Perhaps the lack of demands and expectations have allowed the program’s recessive-gene quality–quiet contemplation–to manifest itself. The Tommy Douglas is nonetheless an elegant-looking, gracefully detailed and–as far as the eye and ear can tell–effective library for the community it serves. Are we too quick to abandon the library of yore for the call of the wild? CA

Adele Weder is an architectural curator and critic based in British Columbia.


Client The City of Burnaby
Architect Team Diamond and Schmitt Architects: A.J. Diamond, Paul Szaszkiewicz, Breck Macfarlane, Derek Newby, Priyanka Bista, Erin Corcoran, James Tenyenhuis, Bruce Han, Mike Votruba. Cei Architecture Planning Interiors: John Scott, Sid Johnson, Derek Newby, Rachel Sun
Structural Bush Bohlman and Partners (Clint Low, Brett Haliki, Michael Sullivan)
Mechanical Cobalt Engineering (Albert Bicol, Susan Hayes, Ken Newbert, John May)
Electrical MCW Consultants Ltd. (Greg Lord, Andrew Burt)
Landscape Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg (Christopher Phillips, Joeseph Fry, Hanako Amaya, Ross Dixon, Andrew Robertson)
Interiors CEI Architecture Planning Interiors (Heidi Matthews, Asar Aminpour, Isabella Pudlak). Diamond And Schmitt Architects (Breck MacFarlane)
Contractor Dominion Fairmile Construction
Life/Safety GHL Consultants Ltd.
Leed Recollective
Commissioning CES Engineering
Civil Hunter Laird Engineering Ltd.
Water Feature Vince Helton & Associates
Geotechnical Trow Associates
Area 17,500 ft2
Budget $9 M
Completion November 2009

Client North Vancouver City Library
Architect Team Diamond and Schmitt Architects: A.J. Diamond, Paul Szaszkiewicz, Breck McFarlane, Jed Braithwaite, Erin Corcoran, Dan Gallivan, Bruce Han, Mui Ling Teh, Cindy Tse, Gary Watson. CEI Architecture Planning Interiors: John Scott, Sid Johnson, Tom Abele, Asar Aminpour, Dusko Cvijic, Alisha Heide, Marlin Johns, Heidi Matthews, Robert Major, Angel Seguin.
Structural RJC Consulting Engineers (Jeff Corbett)
Mechanical Omicron Architecture, Engineering, Construction (Geoff McDonell, Mike Reimer)
Electrical MCW Consultants Ltd. (Robert Deagle, Andrew Burt)
Landscape Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg (Chris Phillips, Joseph Fry)
Contractor PCL Constructors Canada Inc.
Cost BTY Group
Leed Recollective
Civil Engineer Kerr Wood Leidal Associates Limited
Project Manager Turnbull Construction Services
Acoustics Daniel Lyzun and Associates
Envelope Trow Consulting Engineers Ltd.
Lighting Joseph Scott Lighting Consultant
Code LMDG Building Code Consultants
Area 35,000 ft2
Budget $28 M
Completion September 2008