Past and Present

Swing Space, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, Ontario

Schoeler & Heaton/Lapointe Magne et associs, architects in joint venture

Canada’s Library of Parliament, perched dramatically on a high bluff overlooking the Ottawa River, arguably ranks as the country’s most iconic structure. The hexagonal shaped building remains one of the world’s finest examples of French neo-Gothic, but time and cruel winters have been harsh. The Library is currently undergoing a $117 million conservation, rehabilitation, and upgrade–designed by Ogilvie & Hogg, Desnoyers Mercure & associs, Spencer R. Higgins and Lundholm Associates in joint venture–necessitating a temporary relocation of Parliament’s tomes until 2005.

Serendipitously, architect John Lyle’s venerable Bank of Nova Scotia building of 1924, located at 125 Sparks Street just south of Parliament and largely empty for the last 10 years, offered a worthy way station. Montreal’s Lapointe Magne et associs in association with Ottawa’s Schoeler and Heaton Architects have responded admirably to the tricky, $8.2 million brief to insert a memorable modernist interior into a historicist shell.

The building was a natural for its new function. Essentially it is a single, full-height banking hall topped by a huge extant skylight. Two original mezzanines run across the north and south ends of the imposing space. On Sparks Street, Lyle’s robust Doric temple faade with its elevated Georgian first floor is finished with his trademark details derived from uniquely Canadian references (including log cabin relieves).

If this historic south-facing faade has been properly left alone, design architect Robert Magne sustains an adept duality of old and new with his stylish north faade. Vertical panes of glass held in place by mullions of lead-coated copper face Parliament Hill, albeit across a vacant lot.

Pulled six feet away from the original building envelope, this minimalist second skin serves the dual function of bringing light deep into below-grade working areas and ensuring library-standard environmental controls can be maintained. By punching three generous openings in the original, thick north wall to match those on the front facade, Magne has layered delicate transparency against dense punctured mass.

The result is a perforated screen that particularly resonates at night when seen from Confederation Boulevard. This, he maintains, is a modernist faade “that represents a new dynamic from the Parliament Buildings but concedes a strong nod to Gothic verticality.”

But it is the interior that really does the Library proud. “The first challenge,” Magne continues, “was to maintain the continuity of Lyle’s well-preserved details and to temper the insertion of a new vocation in such a way that it would not overpower the building’s original presence and identity.” Faux historical pastiche, however, was not an option.

The grand hall was first given a bridging mezzanine stretching across the east wall. For this added space, the architects designed clean-lined research carousels in richly stained maple and metal. Each desk sports both adjustable ventilation nozzles and spotlights to highlight Lyle’s elegantly coffered ceiling. Along the west edge of this mezzanine, four custom-designed, industrial-like steel light standards stand as sentinels overlooking the centre void; along its full east wall runs a horizontal interior lit onyx box whose rich, mellow glow is almost Art Deco in its inspiration.

But the great room’s true focus and finest accomplishment are the five splendid levels of stacks that the architects have inserted along the west wall. The verticality of the pilaster-like maple stack-ends, emphasized by floor lighting, is counterpointed by the horizontality of the five steel mezzanine decks and their cable balustrades. Even more drama is added by the use of green-tinged opaque glass on the floor decks between the stacks that are eerily lit from below.

Magne chuckles that it is as if the Library had bought an oversized piece of furniture for the house, so why not make it the centrepiece? “Besides,” he continues, “because of [the stacks’] visibility, the image of a modern library is immediately obvious on entry.” The result is that his adaptation retains affinity with Lyle’s grand gestures but “the room takes on a new persona.”

The Library of Parliament’s “swing space,” as it is called, is a particularly accomplished piece of public space-making in a national capital that has seen too few such achievements in recent years. Fortunately, plans are to retain the design after its current use expires.

Rhys Phillips is an Ottawa-based architecture critic.

Client: Public Works and Government Services Canada

Architect team: Damian MacLellan, John Fry, Jonathan Harper, Elmer Kalliomaki, David McConnachie, Gerald Felderhof, Robert Magne, Frdric Dub, Michel Lapointe, Christian Desmarais, Richard Szcawinski, Benot Chaput, Bernard Olivier, Melissa White

Structural: Halsall Associates Ltd.

Mechanical/Electrical: C.J. Fox Engineering Ltd.

Contractor: Ed Brunet et associs inc.

Landscape: Lashley & Associates

Lighting: Louise Lalande, CoCreations

Heritage: Craig Johnson, Restorations

Area: 3,050 m2

Budget: $7.9 million

Completion: September 2001

Photography: Michel Brunelle unless noted