Inner Transformation: Webster Library, Montreal, Quebec
There is no denying the sheer joy one gets stepping into a traditional library with its old book stacks and its long tables. Yet pleasure can turn into pain as a library gets ever more crowded and noisy, eventually becoming almost impossible to work in. Five years ago, this was the situation at Concordia University’s Webster Library, as the student population had grown from 25,000 to 46,000 within two decades. Watching students scramble for space, particularly at exam times, librarian Guylaine Beaudry embarked on a campaign that led to a total transformation.
When she tackled her “optimization” project, Beaudry—who is now Chief Librarian—was not just thinking of growth. She was also thinking of an entirely new reality, that of the virtual library—in her words, the “library of the future.” Finally, she wanted Webster to be open to all: students, faculty and the general public.
Designed by Montreal firm Menkès Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux Architectes (MSDL), the newly renovated Webster Library is still largely a secret to outsiders. No one can guess its presence from the street since the architects had to work within an existing structure, the J. W. McConnell Building. Built in the early 1990s, the pavilion is a heavy postmodern building with opaque walls, a bulky structural grid and a brash colour scheme. Its only saving grace is the integration of a beautiful 1913 white glazed terracotta façade on the Mackay Street side, the former Royal George Apartment Building.
The program was developed in a rigorous way, but left ample room for imagination. Inspired by the optical explorations of Swiss artist Felice Varini, the architects managed to respond to programmatic requirements while alluding to the concept of anamorphosis—a way of arranging visual components so that they appear dynamically distorted, but resolve into a coherent image from a single vantage point.
The program called for the reorganization of the second, third, fourth and fifth floors of the library, and had to take into account the structural grid, the central atrium and the exterior envelope of the 1992 building. A formal portal was built on the ground floor to create a strong visual transition to the existing surroundings. The wood-lined gateway leads up a wide staircase with acoustically treated walls into the hushed environment of the reception area.
The presence of the building’s atrium, despite the constraints it entailed, provided the architects with the opportunity to generate very clear and efficient circulation patterns. The elongated void creates a physical separation between library-connected spaces and administrative services. On the south side of the atrium, each floor is bookended by two large reading rooms filled with natural light, facilitating user orientation. The floorplate on the north side of the atrium includes work rooms, offices, cataloguing areas and a number of spaces where users can experiment with state-of-the-art techniques such as 3D printing, virtual reality or a Technology Sandbox. Although the Webster Library is destined to become much more virtual, books and journals still occupy significant stack space, particularly on the upper three floors, where they are grouped towards the centre of the plan.
Working with the clients, the architects increased seating capacity from 1,500 to 3,300 seats and planned 22 different kinds of study environments, from zero-noise reading rooms to areas where conversations can occur freely. Particular emphasis was placed on customized workspaces created for the collaborative work fostered by Concordia University. Designed as oak boxes with black-aluminium-framed insulated glazed units, these “cubes” were set as discrete objects throughout the library. They were at the heart of the design scheme, says architect Jean-Pierre LeTourneux, FIRAC, who explains how anamorphic projections from the cubes were transposed into the design of triangular wall and ceiling panels, suspended baffles and carpet inserts.
This type of geometry, explored by MSDL in previous projects, “challenges the occupants and energizes the space,” says LeTourneaux. Further, it uses ordinary materials. LeTourneaux adds: “The three-dimensional elements were adapted from standard exterior aluminium panels and developed by the manufacturer using 3D models. The linear baffles are suspended interlocking aluminium sections incorporating fixed linear lighting and accent lights.” Colourful wall and carpet patterns complete the geometric tableau.
The use of colour is particularly effective, as subdued black stacks and white tables act as a counterpoint to the vibrant accent colours. Planted “green walls” also bring welcome visual relief to this secluded environment.
One of the scheme’s strongest gestures is the projection of the fifth floor’s reading lounge volume into the atrium. The room is used for final presentations at the end of graduate studies, and is fittingly placed for representing the students’ ultimate achievement.
Quite a number of well-designed libraries have sprung up in Quebec over the past two decades as a direct result of the province’s policy of tendering cultural-sector projects through design competitions.
Although each project has presented its own challenges, few of them can compare to Concordia University’s Webster Library in terms of size and complexity. Menkès Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux Architectes’ deft and comprehensive transformation is especially remarkable given the fact that the library remained open throughout the entire construction process. The result is a wonderful new facility that may just lead the way towards the “library of the future.”
Odile Hénault, a Montreal-based critic and consultant, is currently an instructor at the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario.
Photos by Adrien Williams.