Canadian Architect


Redressing Urbanity

An inventive new expansion of an historic Carnegie Library inspires and gives new life to a southern Ontario community.

October 1, 2007
by Canadian Architect





Cities, like people and ideas, fall in and out of grace, and Ontario’s mid-size cities, like so many in North America, have been subject to the economic whims of globalization. The city of Cambridge emerged from the 1973 amalgamation of three municipalities: Galt, Hespeler, and Preston. Galt and Hespeler had been successful mill and textile towns in the 19th and early-20th century, due in large measure to the presence of the Grand River and the establishment of the railway. Hespeler, in particular, was home to Dominion Textiles, one of Canada’s largest textile manufacturers, but as the Canadian textile industry fell into decline, so too did the towns’ historic cores, exacerbated by the move of industry and retail to the exurban ring. Each of the three cities maintains an historic urban core endowed with some noteworthy buildings, but they continue to struggle urbanistically and economically.

While it might be ambitious to expect individual buildings to single-handedly reverse the urban trend of a city–they do have the potential to perhaps shift the tide. The presence of the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture by Levitt Goodman Architects in the historic centre of Galt is clearly one example, and the new library in downtown Hespeler may well be another. When first confronted with the question of expanding their building, the Hespeler Library administration had the choice to stay where they were and expand the existing building, or move further from the centre to a greenfield site closer to the residential neighbourhoods. Fortunately, the library chose–for both urban and economic reasons–to remain downtown.

In 2003, Kongats Architects of Toronto were invited to develop an extension to the Hespeler Library, which consisted of the original 1923 Carnegie Library and a 1980s addition. The library sits at the corner of a block, just off the main street of Hespeler. The architects decided it was more advantageous to demolish the nondescript addition and leave only the original Carnegie building, which both the architect and the city preservationists recognized as worthy of preserving and reintegrating into the new library complex.

The new strategy devised by Kongats Architects is both extraordinarily simple and elegant. They have essentially created a new wrapper for the old library, transforming the latter into the “book vault” where adult and children’s stacks are located. The spaces created between the new enclosure and the old building accommodate both public functions and storage facilities. The ground floor contains more active zones, including the reception area and children’s activity room (which doubles as a community room), while the second floor houses the quieter reading spaces, reference desk and librarian offices. The architects cantilevered the second floor beyond the ground-floor envelope to the north, creating both an elegant entry at ground level, and a well proportioned and volumetrically articulated reading room on the second floor.

The entire addition is clad in a glass skin of large butt-jointed glazing, composed of fixed and operable panels allowing for natural ventilation. A woven wire cloth is inserted within panes of glass, and a ceramic fritted pattern of rectangles is tattooed onto the glass, subtly echoing the bricks on the original Carnegie building. The pattern disperses and intensifies as a means of controlling light and views within, creating a syncopated variation along a continuous skin. While this strategy of registering program within the pattern is smart and inventive, the play of elevation/skin pattern could perhaps have been even more pronounced.

Depending on exterior daylight conditions, the library’s skin will reflect the adjacent 19th-century fire station and church across the street, almost disappearing in reflection. At other times, the glass, in its transparency, reveals the old library enclosed within.

If the massing and cladding of the building is reminiscent of the restraint found in recent Japanese architecture, the architects also evince a Scandinavian sensibility toward light, materiality and interiority. Inside, materials are controlled and rigorously deployed, yet maintain a sense of warmth. The intimacy of the interior is striking given the amount of glazing. The reading areas are subdivided into formal work zones and a reading lounge replete with fireplace. All interior walls, floors and fixed interior furniture are sheathed in a wood veneer made from oak offcuts that have been recycled and laminated together with an oil finish. The main stair is treated as a two-storey piece of built-in furniture seemingly emerging from the walls and floors, again clad in oak veneer.

A full-height, open-mesh curtain wraps all the new spaces of the building in a gossamer screen that provides a sense of enclosure when looking from the inside out. The veil-like curtains, which recall the textile history of the city, were the result of a national design competition sponsored by Cambridge Libraries and Galleries, and formed part of the public art component of the project. Designed by Lesley Armstrong and Anke Fox of Armstrong Fox Textiles in Nova Scotia, the curtains, composed of a Japanese yarn of nylon and linen paper, are custom woven on a hand loom and then dyed.

Perhaps the only disappointment of the building is that the interstitial spaces created between the old library and its new skin are not more fully exploited. It may have something to do with the proportions of the newly created void (which also contains vertical circulation), or a desire to keep the diagram of the building clear. However, smaller pockets of interstitial space could provide the opportunity for much more intimate and solitary moments in the library.

The landscape surrounding the library is equally restrained–a row of birch trees mark the entry, creating an elegant entry forecourt. The building sits best on the parking and forecourt side where the building meets hard surfaces. Its minimalism seems to demand a “constructed” ground plane, and the sides where the building simply meets the grass, albeit with a “reveal,” seem more uncomfortable.

The project’s strength is in its ability to experiment and be expressive while demonstrating restraint, for the temptation is always to add more. The building has a diagrammatic clarity which is never subverted, in which each element of the building has a clear role, both at an organizational and a tectonic level. And yet, or rather because of this, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The building equally calls into question what we might mean by contextualism or regional specificity. The Hespeler Public Library is an uncompromisingly modern building, yet through a series of gestures–its subtle historic references, its scale, the way it holds the street corner, the entry forecourt, the play of reflections off existing buildings–it respects yet invigorates the surrounding historic fabric. In that sense, one hopes it might indicate a redressing of the urban life in historic Hespeler.

Lola Sheppard is Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. She is a partner of Lateral Architecture in Toronto.









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Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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