Making Waves

PROJECT Jasper Place Branch Library
ARCHITECTS Hughes Condon Marler Architects and Dub Architects
TEXT Trevor Boddy
PHOTOS Hubert Kang unless otherwise noted

Edmonton in the 1970s was–for a few short years–the most architecturally innovative city in Canada. Design impresario Peter Hemingway was at his peak, as was his friend Douglas Cardinal, who was then finishing St. Mary’s Church and Grande Prairie Regional College. Moreover, Edmonton supported the breakthrough HUB Mall and Citadel Theatre–designs that precipitated a global reputation for Toronto’s Jack Diamond and Barton Myers. The Prairie city may be doing it again. With the support of three-term mayor Stephen Mandel, the achievements of City architect Carol Bélanger, and a civic commitment to engaging local and national design talent (see CA, January 2013), Edmonton has surpassed la belle province as Canada’s most enlightened commissioner of public buildings. The impressive built results now include the new Jasper Place Branch Library. 

The library’s voluptuous waves of thin-shell concrete bring to mind a structure of a different country and era–the lakeside Church of São Francisco in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. That nation’s sixth-largest city, Belo Horizonte is industrial and prosperous, off the tourist’s beaten track, but invigorating in its friendliness and support of creativity and creators–all qualities shared with the Alberta capital. During WWII, the Brazilian metropolis produced the first radically new architecture from the hands of designers who had already mastered the International Style. The innovative lakeside Casa do Baile and Church of São Francisco in the then-new suburb of Pampulha emerged from the same team that would produce Brasilia 20 years later–architect Oscar Niemeyer, urban designer Lúcio Costa and politician Juscelino Kubitschek. First the drawings, then photos of the bold sculptural forms in reinforced concrete were sent to Niemeyer and Costa’s mentor Le Corbusier, who was at that time painting and writing in occupied Paris. In my view, one finds the roots of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp and La Tourette more in the Belo Horizonte innovations than any other single source.

The roofs for both the Belo Horizonte church and the Edmonton library spring from their foundations, spanning one way in a cascading series of vaults. Both have a mezzanine under their highest points, and perhaps most interestingly, both are radical takes on conventional building programs. The Pampulha church was so spatially unprecedented, so committed to modern art and new spaces for new times that the Roman Catholic bishop withheld consecration for 16 years. According to managing design partner Darryl Condon of Vancouver’s Hughes Condon Marler Architects (HCMA), the Jasper Place building is “a library for the end of the era of physical books–pure social space.” Indeed, stacks are at a minimum, and may be further reduced in future years to make more space for study, consultation, readings and so on. A church without official masses, a library where books are not the focus–welcome to the curving space-time continuum of true Modernism!

Jasper Place Library is sited facing Meadowlark Road NW, an arterial leading to a 1960s vintage shopping mall that failed with the rise of West Edmonton Mall, located 14 blocks west. There is a gentle curve in this road’s alignment, unusual for this gridiron prairie city. Upon beginning his urban analysis, Saskatchewan-raised Condon capitalized on the visual power gained by this slight curve by imagining a striking roofline, visible from afar in its flat surroundings. The concept of “one big room” matched the technological ambitions of Edmonton Public Libraries, whose new mechanical book-sorting and self-scanning checkout systems would minimize back-of-house and processing spaces. Jasper Place Library opens up at the south to gather light under a generous cantilever of its roof, but hunkers down to near ground on east and west sides to control heat gain from low-angle sun. This is one Edmonton building that will look even better surrounded by snowbanks, with winter sun diffused through its grade-level window-wrap into the grand reading room. In contrast to the curvilinear roof, the library’s main entrance is a box lined with wood inside and UV-proof composite wood panels outside, a rectangular form that erupts unexpectedly from a wall of glass striated by brise-soleils.

In the same way that Niemeyer built on the innovations of Félix Candela and others in Europe who developed thin-shell concrete, HCMA found the most advanced engineering possible from Vancouver’s Fast + Epp. Serving as both walls and roof, waves of concrete are the heart of the Jasper Place Library, and credit for their brilliance is happily shared by both architects and engineers. What is unique, most post-Pampulha, about the Edmonton roof is the selective removal of portions of the concrete shell for skylights and acoustic treatments up top, and below, apertures set out in front of east elevation windows–its Latin churchiness has been given the Swiss cheese treatment. 

Counterintuitively, the Jasper Place Library roof structure spans north-south along the axis of its folds, bearing on thin rectangular steel tube posts set just within glazed walls. Project engineer Paul Fast explains that post-tensioned cables at the bottom of the roof’s “troughs” are crucial to its lightness and continuous structural action. He notes that Jasper Place Library uses concrete not as an eggshell diaphragm dome (like many of the Candela and Niemeyer creations), but for a trough-stiffened moment frame. The folded plates of the concrete provide lateral stiffness; thus, cross-bracing was not required. Another key innovation is a customized installation of a German Schöck Isokorb pre-manufactured thermal insulation component for where roof meets glass line, in both vertical and horizontal applications. This allows Jasper Place Library’s thin, cantilevered roof brow to remain free of bulky insulation. The standing seams of the roof’s milled aluminum exterior cladding are aligned east-west, perpendicular to the structural axis. Jasper Place Library’s shapes and palette make it a sparkling landmark, visible blocks away. 

With repeated visits over Jasper Place Library’s design and construction period, it was a delight to see these roof forms take shape, then condense with the discipline that left their surfaces clean–not a sprinkler head or light fixture to mar their surfaces, just the pure delight of bare concrete shaping space. But its potential remains partially unrealized in plan: the roof acts relatively independently of the activities it encloses. For example, the layout of book stacks is diagonal to the roof axis, literally at cross-purposes with the powerful spatial logic above. Similarly, key lighting elements–torchieres mounted on high poles providing both up- and down-light–are distributed around the room in a manner that competes, unnecessarily, with the ceiling (a little too much “gee whiz” from a device that needs to be “see whiz”). The colour temperature of the LED lighting fixture chosen, especially for the up-light, is too cold to pull out the warm tones of the exposed concrete. 

The most baffling areas of Jasper Place Library’s plans are the sunken portions of both main and mezzanine floors. The larger one is home to the children’s library, but at a price of one-sixth of its area being eaten up in an activity-defying ramp. The sunken area in the teen lounge upstairs seems even more arbitrary. Why couldn’t these activities been set on flat floors, but located to match the roof–or even better, the roof shaped at conception to give definition to the activities below them? Al
var Aalto’s libraries are signal lessons in the power of section, where drama in roof forms and exploitation of natural light means that plans can remain simple, and always set by a spatial order originating from above. 

The worst distraction in this room is not of either design firm’s doing. A public art piece that spreads across the prominent wooden wall of the only interior elevation, with snowflake geometries on black plates arrayed in checkerboard, needlessly adds to the busyness of the room. As wonderful as Edmonton’s public architecture program has become, there is work to be done in bringing public art up to the same standard. My two favourite Jasper Place Library spaces are the more intimate (and closer to the concrete ceiling) reading room upstairs, and the outside deck which glories in light and views, sheltered by a concrete cantilever.

HCMA project designers Condon and Stuart Maddocks assert that this 1,400-square-metre library can evolve over time. Indeed, Jasper Place Library’s structural bones are strong, and the building’s functional flesh can adapt, notably with HCMA and Dub Architects designing in raised floors to accommodate any new information technology or stacks alignment (or even a total lack of stacks). True to Condon’s notion of library as “pure social space,” I saw clutches of patrons, old and young, clustered around screens showing kitten videos, with very few cruising those diminished rows of books. But is YouTube any worse than the Tom Swift teen novels that drew my generation of wannabe-astronaut dweebs to libraries, or the Penny Dreadful mysteries that appealed to my great-grandfather?

A descriptor Condon, local project architect Michael Dub and their clients at Edmonton Public Libraries constantly use regarding Jasper Place Library is “memorable.” The library is memorable to all who experience its rich spaces, as were the Edmonton works of the early 1970s, or São Francisco and its accompanying Pampulha developments in the early 1940s. Niemeyer’s influential first experiments were built far from the ant trails of architectural critics and historians, which meant a long pause in understanding and appreciating their innovations. A reflection of the “Pampulha effect” onto the snowy northern plains, Niemeyer would undoubtedly be pleased with Jasper Place Library’s addition to Edmonton’s beautiful horizon. CA 

Lecturing regularly on design throughout Latin America, Vancouver architectural historian and critic Trevor Boddy has met the late Niemeyer and interviewed Costa. He recently edited the book Pools: Aquatic Architecture by Hughes Condon Marler Architects (ORO Editions).

Client City of Edmonton/Edmonton Public Librar
Architect Team Darryl Condon, Gene Dub, Stuart Maddocks, Michael Dub, Steve Dipasquale, Vincent Siu, Ciaran Bona
Structural Fast + Epp
echanical/Electrical Williams Engineering Canada Inc.
Landscape Carlyle + Associates
Contractor Stuart Olson Dominion Construction
Civil ISL Engineering and Land Services Inc.
Code LMDG Building Code Consultants Inc.
Acoustic Brown Strachan Associates
Area 1,400 m2
Budget $8 M
Completion December 2012