PROJECT Halifax Central Library, Halifax, Nova Scotia
ARCHITECTS Fowler Bauld & Mitchell Ltd. (Architect & Prime Consultant) with Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects (Design Architect)
TEXT Brian Carter
PHOTOS Adam Mørk
A short walk in Halifax will help to dispel rumours of the death of print and unease regarding civic neglect. The new central library at the junction of Spring Garden Road and Queen Street, designed by the Danish architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen and the Canadian practice of Fowler Bauld & Mitchell, is significant in many ways.
Spring Garden Road, an eight-block-long street that threads its way through the city, is a lively place. Anchored at one end by the Public Gardens, this strip of messy urbanism is lined with a jumble of buildings: generic atriums and glassy office blocks, a former bank that’s now a coffee shop, fragments of Dalhousie University, an imposing church opposite a stony provincial courthouse, and a historic burial ground. It terminates at the Maritime Centre, a pair of concrete slabs perhaps inspired by I.M. Pei.
Spring Garden Road has also been the home of Bud the Spud. Over the years this colourful food truck was parked alongside a patch of municipal grass where it provided an informal gathering place and chips for passersby who were hungry, thrifty and short of time. It also marked the entrance to the Spring Garden Road Memorial Library. A modest two-storey stone building set back from the street, designed in postwar Commonwealth Classicism and subsequently extended in the 1960s with the addition of a concrete bunker, it was dour, cramped and well-used.
The new Halifax Public Library that has been built nearby, the result of an architectural competition held in 2010, presents a stark contrast. Strikingly large, monumental and very glassy, it provides 15,000 square metres of space on five levels. The building consists of conspicuous boxes, each placed seemingly informally one above the other, in a tall and unlikely pile.
The library, a notable building type, has undergone many transformations over time. Most recently, the displacement of the book and reconfiguration of the civic realm by invisible networks and alternative economic models have prompted further reconsiderations. New libraries, like Birmingham City Library by Mecanoo and OMA’s radical proposal for Seattle Central Library, have exploited the potential of the big box.
Frequently used as a label for retail outlets where goods are piled high, the big box also played a prominent role in the development of Modern architecture. Studies by Mies van der Rohe advanced a new International Style, characterized by the glass-box Modernism of Gordon Bunshaft, Eero Saarinen and other notable Mid-Century Modern architects. The elegant, minimal, glassy containers that they designed housed a range of uses within vast spaces defined by remarkable transparency. Renewed interest in these buildings—combined with increasing awareness of the impact of weather and uncertainty about the relevance of “blobs” fabricated through new digital technologies—have revived interest in the potential of the big box.
The new library in Halifax consists of five big boxes. Expressed as discrete objects, each is clad in glass. However, it is glass that differs in colour and which is occasionally patterned by fritting—decisions that create mystery and ambiguity that relate to the similarities and differences between the volumes.
These particular glass boxes have also been stacked high and skewed one above the other. The two strategies—stacking and skewing—offer distinct benefits, and the design has exploited them effectively. The stacked tower opens up new and remarkable views over the city that highlight the Citadel, Halifax Harbour, other conspicuous piles of containers along the waterfront, Dartmouth and the forests and ocean beyond. At the same time, outdoor spaces created by skewing have been thoughtfully landscaped and made accessible for the public and library staff. Moving up through the building and across these terraces reveals an expansive panorama that emphasizes the conspicuous location of Halifax at a threshold to North America.
The monumental tower of boxes sits uneasily on Spring Garden Road. A gigantic neighbour, it creates an odd remnant of space on the street where the main entrance has been set back under a massive cantilever. Located at a particularly significant place in the city and delineated by paving, plantings and an incongruous public telephone, it is difficult to envisage how the space will be used. In contrast, the building provides a distinctive edge to the west where a second entrance, book drop and access to an elegantly designed upper terrace significantly improve Queen Street.
Inside the main entrance, the new library is defined by a tall top-lit atrium that has been planned perpendicular to Spring Garden Road. And while the atrium is a familiar device, this particular space has been designed with fine proportions and detailing. The resulting elegance recalls Scandinavian architecture, rather than the familiar commercial razzmatazz that so often characterizes new buildings in North America.
Unlike many historic precedents, this is not a library defined by an overwhelming presence of books. Instead, much of the shelving and book storage is located towards the edges of the building. Consequently, the atrium offers views into open galleries where different forms of electronic access to information are readily available at each level. Planned for informal working, browsing and a range of educational activities, these galleries are notable for their emphatic use of colour, and present an impressive informality. Freestanding pods and specially commissioned artwork by Cliff Eyland define private work areas and reading spaces, while the different floors are connected by chunky sets of angled stairs that crisscross the atrium.
The atrium has also been projected through the entire length of the building. This is an inspired move that enables it to connect the entrance and a café on Spring Garden Road to a new 300-seat multipurpose performance space fronting a landscaped outdoor terrace, accessible from Queen Street. This indoor-outdoor auditorium confounds any idea of the library as a hushed reading room and instead provides an extraordinary public space that can be used for lectures, readings, drama and dance and which also ingeniously integrates the library and the city. It brings to mind ideas for fun palaces and Thinkbelts sketched by Cedric Price that, in the new Halifax Public Library, have been made real with considerable ingenuity and a remarkable degree of refinement.
The hand of the Danish designers is apparent in the spatial organization and material palette of the library. It recalls the austerity and lightness that is characteristic of Scandinavian architecture, yet seems wholly appropriate when projected into Canada. The simplicity of detailing and quality of finishes throughout the building creates spaces that are not merely calming but inspirational.
The new Public Library in Halifax is an exceptional project. At times it is strident beyond need, yet the building assertively signals a remarkable commitment to architecture in the service of the public good. A short walk from the Spring Garden Road Memorial Library, it highlights a stark contrast to the old, references the vision of an ambitious client, and highlights inspired civic patronage.
An extremely bold addition to the city, this new building now demands courage and creative management to fulfill its promise. At a time when the demise of civic architecture is announced almost as frequently as the death of the book, this totemic pile of big glass boxes provides an unexpected yet welcome beacon in the Maritimes.
Brian Carter, a graduate of the University of Toronto, was the former Chair of Architecture at the University of Michigan and Dean of the School of Architecture & Planning at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, where he is currently Professor of Architecture.
Client Halifax Regional Municipality/Halifax Public Libraries | Architect Team Schmidt Hammer Lassen—Morten Schmidt, Chris Hardie, Mette Wienberg, Stuart Hill, Jessica Mentz, Lars Vejen. Fowler Bauld & Mitchell—George Cotaras, Wayne Duncan, Susan Fitzgerald, Mark Gammon, D’Arcy Dennehy, Stacey MacInnis, Sheena Moore, Greg Fry, Harvey Freeman, Maureen Aubut, Megan Baker. | Structural SNC-Lavalin with Ove Arup (concept design) | Mechanical/Electrical CBCL Limited with Ove Arup (concept design) | Civil SNC-Lavalin | Landscape Gordon Ratcliffe Landscape Architect | Interiors Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects and Fowler Bauld & Mitchell Ltd. | Public Consultation Myrgan Inc. | Sustainability Solterre Design | Acoustics Swallow Acoustic Consultants Ltd. | Building Code RJ Bartlett Engineering Ltd. | Curtain Wall BVDA Façade Engineering Ltd. | Wind & Snow Environmental Theakston Environmental Consulting Engineers | Theatre Design Theatre Consulting Group Ltd. | Third-Party Commissioning FC O’Neill Scriven & Assoc. Ltd. | Project Manager Halifax Regional Municipality | Construction Manager EllisDon Corporation | Area 14,996 m2 | Budget $57.6 M | Completion November 2014