Editorial: Cultivating Connection at the Calgary Central Public Library

Calgary’s dynamic Central Library resulted from a highly collaborative process between the architects, client, and contractor. Photo by Michael Grimm

Calgary’s Central Public Library, designed by DIALOG with Snøhetta, is one of those special places that has been beloved by both architects and residents since the day of its opening in 2018.

Touring the building earlier this year at the RAIC Conference, I learned that the project also shares the distinction of being led by a largely female team. On the client side, this included Kate Thompson, President and CEO of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) and Sarah Meilleur, CEO of the Calgary Public Library. On the design side, the project architect was DIALOG principal Janice Liebe, while Snøhetta’s lead architect was Vanessa Kassabian and its lead landscape architect was Michelle Delk. Carolyn Haddock of Colliers Project Leaders (formerly MHPM) was instrumental in the cultural makeup and direction of the project.

Unpacking what a feminist perspective brings to a project necessitates generalities, but in hearing from Thompson, Liebe, and Meilleur, who led the tour I attended, it was clear that an emphasis on relationship-building, rather than power hierarchies, contributed significantly—if also quietly—to the project’s success.

When the city first began discussing a new central library, DIALOG’s Calgary principals immediately recognized that they headed one of the few firms positioned to be the executive architect on such a project. After a careful consideration of who they would like to work with as a design architect, they reached out to Oslo-based Snøhetta to broach the idea of partnering. This was a full five years before the design competition was announced, says Liebe, who recalls fielding many calls following the competition launch from international firms expecting to find an eager partner in DIALOG, rather than a firm whose joint venture had already been long established.

The idea of nurturing strong relationships continued in a study tour that was part of the design phase. This included not only the architects and clients, but also leads from contractor Stuart Olson’s team. It was a daring decision, says Thompson, as it meant having to justify touring a dozen people across Europe on public money—but it paid off in developing a common understanding of references shared by all key players. Some of the direct effects of this, for instance, were the shared conviction that the library would have wood ceilings throughout, and a feel for the slope and proportions of the ramps ascending through the building.

As the construction progressed, Meilleur’s focus turned to nurturing a sense of ownership for the library’s staff, who would become the building’s prime custodians and ambassadors. Weekly Friday construction site tours allowed every member of the central library’s staff to see the project taking shape. Their evident excitement, in turn, lent construction workers a sense of purpose. Says Meilleur, meeting with the librarians inspired one tradesperson to switch from telling people he was “working in construction” to saying he was “teaching kids to read.” The library’s future patrons were also invited to be part of the wind-up to opening: the furniture for the teen area, for instance, was tested and selected by adolescent volunteers.

“Everybody belongs at the Library, because the Library belongs to you,” declares the Calgary Public Library’s website. That focus is evidenced in the final library: a beehive of multi-generational activity, from a play area and Lego zone my six-year-old would happily suffer a cross-country journey to visit, to jigsaw and board game areas, to a 330-seat performance hall. The building is crowned by a grand reading room, which patrons have intuitively designated as a quiet zone.

But perhaps one of the Calgary Public Library’s most unique offerings—and one that underscores the theme of connection—is its one-on-one-consultation program, which Thomp­son describes as “taking out a person,” or a chance to consult with an expert, instead of with a book. And where to meet for that conversation? There’s a place for that at the Central Public Library.