Long Overdue

Project Whitby Public Library and Civic Plaza, Whitby, Ontario

Architects Shore Tilbe Irwin and Partners

Text Ian Chodikoff

Photos Ben Rahn/A-Frame

When a firm is of a certain age or when its senior partners approach retirement, it becomes critical to bring in new partners with fresh perspectives. Relying too heavily on the past can signal the death knell for an office’s future. This was the case for Toronto-based Shore Tilbe Irwin and Partners (STI) who began to restructure its partnership a few years ago. Realizing that design proficiency was an area of professional service that needed improvement, STI signed on Andrew Frontini as their newest partner in 2005. The Whitby Public Library and Civic Plaza is Frontini’s first major project at the firm and the result of a significant turning point in STI’s long history.

Shore Tilbe Irwin and Partners was established in 1945. In addition to gaining a reputation for designing schools in the 1950s, the firm won acclaim for such notable projects as the Union Carbide Head Office in Toronto (demolished in 1999) and the Imperial Oil Research Centre in Mississauga, a 1958 Massey Medal winner. Over time, STI coasted on its reputation for delivering competent institutional and educational projects that were becoming increasingly formulaic in their design approach. As a result of their longstanding ability to efficiently deliver results to their clients, STI increasingly took on joint ventures with other architecture firms like Teeple Architects and Kohn Shnier Architects, practices initially known for their design skills rather than an ability to manage larger projects. STI was evolving into a production office that could churn out a fine set of working drawings, but not necessarily projects of strong design merit.

The situation began to change in 1995 when D’Arcy Arthurs became a partner at STI. Arthurs was conscientiously working toward building a portfolio of award-worthy architecture in Aurora, Barrie and London, Ontario. New associates like Duff Balmer joined the firm soon afterward, and the next major shift occurred in 2005 when Andrew Frontini, a 1991 graduate from the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, was promoted to the position of design partner after being with the firm for five years. Enduring the economic black hole of the 1990s that decimated a generation of young architects, Frontini belongs to a sought-after group of architects in their late 30s and early 40s who are beginning to assume senior positions in some of the country’s most established firms. In addition to the Whitby Public Library, Frontini has also been involved with STI’s Bruce/Fathom Five National Park Visitor Centre, the Grimsby Library and Art Gallery, and the Westmount Branch Library in London, Ontario.

Whitby (pop. 115,000) is a bedroom community located about 45 minutes east of Toronto along the Trans-Canada Highway. As the needs of the town grew, the original 16,000-square-foot library built in the early ’60s by Moriyama and Teshima needed replacement.

Located on top of a hill, overlooking drive-through banks and fast food restaurants, the completely new 50,000-square-foot facility and civic plaza is just down the road from Whitby’s original Main Street, a respectable and active 19th-century streetscape. The effective siting of the library is what contributes to its overall success. The site is bounded by Dundas Street, a busy four-lane arterial to the north, with Henry Street, another busy arterial to its west. To allow for a sufficiently scaled public plaza, Frontini “dragged the program” back to the south end of the site along Colborne Street, an inconsistently scaled residential condition with heritage Victorian homes adjacent to an unfortunate ’70s precast concrete apartment building.

The eastern edge along King Street is anchored by two recently restored City-owned heritage properties. By closing off King Street from Colborne Street, Frontini allowed a quiet south-facing landscape to be designed by the MBTW Group. This forecourt serves as a quiet counterpart to the civic plaza while giving something back to the neighbours who were concerned that the new library would be overbearing. In a car-oriented community like Whitby, vehicular access is essential, but the landscaped forecourt that greets staff and visitors as they enter the building from the 18-stall parking lot is a well-tempered feature to the project.

The framing of the north-facing civic plaza is particularly effective. A narrow L-shaped two-storey building along the eastern boundary intersecting with a deeper volume stretching across the southern portion of the site provides a convincing backdrop for a generously scaled plaza. The transparency of the library’s expansive north faade allows for an animated expression while engaging in a dialogue between interior and exterior spaces.

The eastern edge of the plaza is anchored by a variety of busy activities: community meeting rooms, offices and a caf. Along the western edge of the plaza, a one-metre drop in elevation was used as a design opportunity to create a water fountain and reflecting pool extending back into a notch in the library. And finally, with a long thin canopy, Frontini defined the edge of the Dundas Street site with a gateway meant to be inhabited by market stalls or a range of civic activities. The canopy roof is clad in copper and the illuminated structural piers are clad in limestone. Although the plaza’s opportunities for a civic gathering place are only beginning to be understood by the town, it is hoped that the farmers’ market, outdoor celebrations and other activities will migrate to this civic square for a range of year-round activities.

Inside the library, Frontini has created a multi-layered space. The main entrance, an intimately scaled central lobby, is located at the intersection of the building’s three main functions: library, meeting rooms and archives. The central spine, or North Atrium, looks out toward the plaza. This is the area of the library containing “spinners,” densely stocked display racks of pulp fiction and popular reading material. Long, slender light fixtures suspended from the ceiling illuminate both the North and Central Atria. Made of translucent plastic with fluorescent lighting inside the tube, the fixtures include uplighting and downlighting elements and accentuate the double-height spaces in the library, serving as beacons to those approaching or driving by the building. Minimally obstructing the view out toward to the plaza, the faade is braced by a steel frame comprised of an unusually dimensioned narrow HSS profile imported from the US. Paying roughly a 20 percent premium, Phillip Meades assisted Frontini in specifying a steel section that is much more narrow than wide.

Also situated along the North Atrium spine is a computer lab, kiosks with internet connections, and automated check-out stations. Migrating south through the building are study rooms, quiet chairs and places where various reading and research facilities are located. Towards the back of the library, north-facing clerestories, light wells and indentations into the south elevation provide ample and diffuse natural daylight. Also along the south elevation, one discovers a deep copper-clad bay window with large leather cushions for introspection and reading.

Throughout the building, there are various notches cut into the perimeter that attempt to engage a dialogue between the landscape and interior spaces. For the most part, these are largely gestures, but the reflecting pond that continues into a notched recess at the juncture of the children’s reading lounge along the main east-west axis is particularly successful. And while the heavily articulated angled fins along the western faade relate the building to the mature row of trees lining the edge of the site, this design feature seems largely disconnected from the overall architectural expression of the building.

Under the direction of
Frontini, Whitby’s new library and civic plaza marks a new era of intelligently designed projects to emerge from Shore Tilbe Irwin and Partners. The project is also representative of a new generation of work resulting from the regeneration of one of Canada’s oldest firms. Indeed, the library’s success can be measured by the number of visitors using the building–an increase from 18,000 to nearly 50,000 users per month. Just as the library was completed, Frontini was awarded a second project for the Town of Whitby: the Brooklin Library and Community Centre. And with that project and with many other ongoing projects from STI, we await the results of the firm’s ongoing efforts to reposition itself on the architectural map.

Client The Town of Whitby and Whitby Public Library

Architect Team Andrew Frontini, D’arcy Arthurs, Frank Park

Interiors Lene Otbo Rozel, Liz Livingston

Structural Meades Engineering Ltd.

Electrical Crossey Engineering Ltd.

Mechanical Smith and Andersen Consulting

Landscape MBTW Group

Contractor Bondfield Construction Company

Budget $16 M

Area 56,000 Ft2

Completion Summer 2005