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Modernist Revisions

A sensitive addition highlights the beauty of a 1960s library in Kitchener’s central civic square.

February 1, 2015
by Javier Zeller

At the entrance to the Kitchener Central Library, the former facade is enclosed in a showcase-like vitrine.

At the entrance to the Kitchener Central Library, the former facade is enclosed in a showcase-like vitrine.

PROJECT Addition and Renovation to the Main Branch of Kitchener Public Library, Kitchener, Ontario
ARCHITECTS LGA Architectural Partners in association with WalterFedy & Phillip H. Carter Architect
TEXT Javier Zeller
PHOTOS Ben Rahn/A-Frame

For many of us, a library represents one of our most positive points of contact with public institutions. We take children there, we visit for pleasure or research, and we experience a sense of community in the process. Libraries offer a rare opportunity to connect with each other outside the framework of commerce, removed from the client identity that pervades civic and popular culture. They are one of the few remaining building types that elicit a real sense of joy in being a citizen. As technology continues to transform our society at an unprecedented rate, library administrators are looking to architects to help make sense of the evolving nature of their institutions.

A view of the library from the west.

A view of the library from the west.

The Kitchener Central Library renovation and addition typifies the new breed of library, while reusing an old library as its backbone. The newly completed building, by LGA Architectural Partners in joint venture with Phillip H. Carter Architect, opened in May 2014 following a challenging four-year phased construction process during which it remained operational. The design transforms a historic Modernist building: surrounding it with a new high-performance envelope, amplifying the scale and sensibility of the original library, and introducing an elegant sequence of spaces, some added and some revealed through subtraction. The result is a robust, generous piece of civic infrastructure.

The original library—a precast and stone-clad building—had served as Kitchener’s central library since its completion in 1962. Carl Rieder, a Kitchener architect noted for many of that city’s postwar landmarks including the Centre in the Square theatre immediately east of the site, designed the mid-century building.

The library has personal significance for David Warne, partner in charge of the project at LGA. Warne grew up in Kitchener and knew Rieder’s creation well. “The library had a heroic space-age quality to it that made a strong impression on me. Applying to architecture schools, I wrote an essay about this building and my father working on it as an engineer,” recalls Warne.

Site Plan

Site Plan

Rieder had originally envisioned the library as part of a larger civic precinct that would encompass the entire city block. LGA’s project goes some ways towards fulfilling the spirit of this vision. While the new library retains much of Rieder’s original design, the footprint has been expanded by 25,000 square feet, with the addition completely transforming the east and south façades. A former surface parking lot to the south has been replaced with a new children’s library at the ground floor, and a second-floor information centre. Parking is now consolidated in a municipal lot below grade. This lot, which extends to the east past the library’s footprint, provides 412 spaces for the library, Centre in the Square, and future developments in the municipal precinct.

An installation by Moss & Lam is made of 20,000 pages, hand-silkscreened with text in different languages.

An installation by Moss & Lam is made of 20,000 pages, hand-silkscreened with text in different languages.

The design maintains the entry sequence from Queen Street, adding a double-height vestibule clad in walnut. Visitors are greeted by a skylit atrium, filled at its second level with a translucent paper cloud of silkscreened text—an art installation by Moss & Lam. The circulation is contained under a wood-clad ceiling plane that culminates in the ground-floor children’s library, where small-scale millwork reading nooks wrap the concrete columns. Midway, a stair leads to the second-floor information services concourse: a high-ceilinged space that is this century’s response to last century’s reading room. The library program unfolds rationally to either side of this central spine. At the perimeter of both the main and upper levels, a series of intimate study spaces and seating are arranged along the glass.

The addition features an open-plan concourse on its second floor.

The addition features an open-plan concourse on its second floor.

A particular challenge in the design was integrating the realities of arrival by car. “We didn’t want people to exit a carpark and have to walk around the building to a front entrance,” says Warne. Instead, a generous stairwell extends the library interior’s material palette of limestone to the parking level, from which patrons can enter directly. A small measure of the clever economy of the library’s design is that the override of an adjacent elevator becomes a square reading table at the library’s second floor.

A rhythmic use of curtain wall ties together the existing building and new addition.

A rhythmic use of curtain wall ties together the existing building and new addition.

The project treats the original building as both found object and lodestone, revealing and clarifying elements of Rieder’s design. The building exterior interlaces a black granite base—an abstracted elaboration of the original building’s base condition—with a continuous volume of high-performance curtain wall. The curtain wall sits proud of the base, and is syncopated with fritted and spandrel panels. The lower half of the curtain wall lifts and falls as it encircles the building faces, allowing access and revealing portions of the original library exterior. A study of Rieder’s original façade revealed extensive use of the golden section in the composition. An abstracted version of these original proportions is deployed to organize the rhythm of the new façade.

Most effective is the north face, where the 1960s library front slips through the curtain-wall volume and is held within it as though in a vitrine. The curtain wall portion of the façade is also fitted with LED lighting, which can be connected with the building automation system, changing in colour and intensity to reflect the environment inside and around the library.

Book stacks were cleared from a space near the front of the building, creating a grand reading room embellished with a mural by Jack Bechtel dating from the 1960s.

Book stacks were cleared from a space near the front of the building, creating a grand reading room embellished with a mural by Jack Bechtel dating from the 1960s.

The largest interior space of the 1960s building has been transformed into a street-facing reading room. The rows of book stacks that once filled that area have been replaced with soft seating and magazine shelving, revealing the volume of the original space. We are finally allowed uninterrupted views of the remarkable mural Enlightenment by Jack Bechtel, among the first art pieces commissioned with a Canada Council grant. Leaving the mural intact while bringing the uninsulated building up to LEED Gold standard required removing the rubblestone from the bearing wall behind the mural, installing a modern building envelope including insulation, and replacing the stone to maintain the appearance of the building’s original façade.

Bridges weave through the former exterior bays of the library.

Bridges weave through the former exterior bays of the library.

The south façade has also been retained in its original form, transformed into an interior dividing wall. The design is at its best here: the new building held back from Rieder’s two-storey rubblestone panels and precast arches with bridges spanning into the original window openings. The roof of the addition is lifted off from this south face with a continuous clerestory, floating the ceiling above the adjacent volumes. Within this new room, the original building exterior takes on an intriguing nested character, giving it the quality of a Modernist ruin within the new library.

A waffle-slab ceiling tops a new reading room.

A waffle-slab ceiling tops a new reading room.

Within the addition, exposed waffle-slab ceilings sit on concrete columns—a choice that initially seems too much of a formal quotation from the ’60s. But, weaving between the old and new portions of the building, the decision makes sense. Here is a public institution that matches the original in its toughness. The revitalized Kitchener Central Library recalls the best qualities of Modernist public architecture—complete with durable material quality, and the mid-century’s signature tension between grandeur and economy of means.

Javier Zeller, MRAIC, is an architect working in Toronto with Diamond Schmitt Architects.

Client City of Kitchener/Region of Waterloo/Kitchener Public Library | Architect Team David Warne, Janna Levitt, Phillip H. Carter, Christie Pearson, Cynthia Dovell, José Castel-Branco, Leo Lin, Sharon Leung, Kris Payne, Amanda Reed | Civil/Structural/Mechanical/Electrical WalterFedy | Landscape Scott Torrance Landscape Architect | Code Leber Rubes | Acoustic HGC Engineering | Costing Hanscomb | Heritage Phillip H. Carter | Artists Flux atrium mobile by Deborah Moss and Edward Lam; children’s area mural by Melissa Levin; Enlightenment original reading room mural by Jack Bechtel | Area 10,280 m2 (3,880 m2 added to existing building) | Budget $49.4 M | Completion September 2014




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1 Comment » for Modernist Revisions
  1. c.a.rieder says:

    I wish to express my gratitude to Mr Warne and all responsible for
    the addition to the Kitchener library for respecting my father’s
    original design to the extent that they did. My ‘prayers’have been
    answered in the way I’d hoped for; the needs of the present and
    the importance of heritage nicely reconciled. Of course, the semi-
    old building had emotional importance for me but objectively, I’m
    certain absolutely that-unless history stops repeating itself- 1960s Modernism will be back again…..and again….. Congratulations. Christopher Rieder





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