Canadian Architect

Feature

Speed Reading

A dramatic library design still offers quiet repose in the midst of suburban autoroutes.

November 1, 2003
by Nyla Matuk

Ajax Central Library, Ajax, Ontario
Teeple Architects Inc

This civic project for the small city of Ajax, like most civic projects for developing suburban areas, revolved around the need to secure an urban identity in the midst of a low-density environment which by necessity privileges automotive routes. Located next to the extant Ajax Civic Square associated with the city’s municipal administration building, the project is designed, like Teeple Architects’ York University Honour Court and Welcome Centre (see CA, April 2002, p. 15), with speed as a metaphor and objective correlative.

Busy and fast-moving urbanity is nowhere more apparent in the project than at its north end on the Harwood Avenue side, where a striking “urban moment,” as the architects describe it, is carved out when the building reaches out in a highly glazed corner condition which contains a reading room of natural light. This corner fulfills the desire of the client for drama and the presence of a civic marquee for passing motorists.

At the south end next to the municipal building, a forecourt is set back from the street at an appropriately lower grade, sheltered from Harwood Avenue’s sidewalk by a small berm, a handicap ramp and stairs. It remains to be seen if this forecourt will form a new focal point of public activity for Ajax. Further community use is encouraged with prominent spaces such as a community room and a children’s programming area included on the ground floor.

Inside, the overlook device is made use of liberally, and includes a small open-to-below cut-out near the north end’s sharp reading space and a seating area halfway up the main stairwell, which looks down onto the free-standing circulation desk. These lookouts carve out a vertical and bird’s eye perspective for the visitor, a much-needed respite from the horizontality of motor traffic and the ubiquitous travel by car that is a feature of life in the suburbs along the TransCanada highway. Another foil to this aspect of life was the City’s decision to situate the typical and ample parking lot at the back of the building to the east, rather than placing it at the front and turning it into an immediate feature of the experience of visiting the building. It is a given that most people will drive, but the parking need not dominate the building by being placed in the front. Glazing encased in an extruded stucco frame faces the parking lot and swimming pool, and beckons the pedestrian leaving her car to enter the library, so that the effect at the back of the building is more informal and more inviting than the library’s front entry. This assertive judgement call about the architecture of the back entrance makes sense, given that the majority of the pedestrian activity to the library is likely to come from the cars in the lot.

Equally successful for its provision of variability in the monotony of a predominantly motorized landscape is the use of a palette of Manitoba Tyndall stone and ceramic tile. Each elevation, apart from distinguishing itself architecturally, contains materials that highlight the twisting dynamic of the building’s forms. Materials on the exterior are presented with the use of pre-cast elements that lift the Tyndall stone and ceramic tiles from grade to moderate the space between the ground and stone or ceramic tile above. A delicately resolved flashing detail, with its reveal, brings about a more resolved cornice line above the stucco volume that frames the glazing at the back of the buildling. It provides a visual relief above the solid volumes, through the creation of a shadow-line. The effect is much cleaner than a simple cap flashing. In fact, this shadow-line continues along the roofline of most of the building.

This twist in the building’s main volumes is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the project’s aesthetic, but this design works well in a pragmatic consideration too. As a user-considered facility, the experience of using the library’s reading spaces and smaller corners that are, to use a motoring metaphor, “off the main drag” is not an over-determined or “canned” architectural experience. To wit, the free-standing circulation desk allows users and librarians an open-ended sense of navigation and possibility of moving away from it to other parts of the building. The fact that the administrative offices are set against the wall away from the circulation desk proper–not a tradition in library programming, by and large–underscores the circulation desk as a flexible, public- and librarian-centred meeting place. At the front entry along Harwood Avenue, most (but not all) of the mechanical systems are resolved in one area, and the multipurpose, fully wired gallery space near it encloses activity in order not to impact on the daily general uses of the library for study and quiet reading. This delineation of space was motivated, it seems, by programmatic considerations in far greater measure than aesthetic ones. This is the case even though we are always conscious of the double-height parallelogram atrium and its eccentric shift of planes made so obvious at the front entry.

A warm palette of materials that includes the quality of the carpeting, white oak and natural stone floors is enhanced by the natural light filtering in through the two and a half-storey void with generous clerestoreys and lantern-windows that capture sunlight at differing times of the day. Some adjustment, however, to the colour temperature of the grocery-store styled overhead lighting may be in order.

Though a cool palette of steel and glass are prominent at the distinctive corner condition outside, there is a counterpointing tactility established with the distinctive squiggle pattern of the Tyndall stone, its horizontal raked joint and vertical flush joints. Add to this game of contrasts the wood doors and hooded window conditions. The shift of volumes’ planes, again a trademark of urbanity with its suggestion of more dense conditions, was in keeping with the client’s wishes for the character of such a building in the suburban surroundings.

Between the tight budget and the client’s demand for drama without artifice, the facility’s designers were asked to use their imaginations and read between the lines. They managed to walk the tightrope of deliverables for the client and perform acrobatics–somehow all at the same time.

Client: Geoff Nie (Ajax Public Library), Alan Dunn (Ajax Main Central Library)

Architect team: Stephen Teeple, Chris Radigan, Matthew Smith, Joanne Heinen, Luke Bouilliene

Structural: C+V Engineering

Mechanical: John Frederick

Electrical: Tony McDonnell

Landscape: MBTW Group

Interiors: Teeple Architects Inc.

Contractor: Bondfield

Area: 30,000 square feet

Budget: $5 million

Completion: November 2002

Photography: As noted




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