Raising the Roof

PROJECT Brooklin Community Centre and Library, Brooklin, Ontario
ARCHITECT Perkins+Will Canada
TEXT Paige Magarrey
PHOTOS James Brittain

Its bustling energy is evident before even entering. Standing in the entryway to the Brooklin Library and Community Centre, the entire sprawling complex comes into view. Children running through the library, elderly ladies learning to salsa in the seniors’ centre, an aerobics class underway in the gym. For a moment it feels like the epicentre of the small town at the northern edge of Whitby, and in many ways it is: bringing together longstanding citizens with newcomers to the surrounding suburbs and linking together groups that previously gathered at opposite ends of the village. “None of these spaces were together before,” says Perkins+Will’s Andrew Frontini, who headed up the project. “When you bring it all together you have a real energy.”

Brooklin represents an ever more common type of Ontario small town: a historic village of independent shops and small bungalows whose edges are seeping outward as surrounding farmland and forests are replaced with residential developments and big-box stores. Existing community buildings were fast becoming inadequate: a 19th-century brick community hall, an old mill-turned-multipurpose space, and a 185-square-metre library spread seniors, youths and new parents to different facilities across the community and separated newly arrived residents from the village core. 

Enter Perkins+Will. The Canadian chapter, formed in 2011 as an amalgamation of Vermeulen Hind Architects, Shore Tilbe Perkins+Will and Busby Perkins+Will, brought a diverse range of experience in the realm of community facilities, including the serene sunlight-filled Angus Glen Community Centre and Library, and the dramatic stone-clad Whitby Public Library and Civic Square. For Brooklin, the firm was selected from a 2005 competition to design a new community centre replacing an existing library and attached fire hall. The site featured decades-old greenery and backed onto Kinsmen Park and Lynde Creek. Their winning entry focused on the “bald spots” that would be created when the existing buildings and playground were torn down; the design proposed a series of linked structures that wove through the site, leaving as much of the surrounding nature intact as possible. “Our approach was to really work with this long narrow site,” says Frontini. “We thought these three spots could be our building blocks.”

By the time they began to fine-tune the concept–the project remained in limbo until 2008 due to the possibility of a post office being added–the team all but redesigned it while keeping with the basic linked pavilion idea, which allowed the 3,716-square-metre complex to be broken into smaller parcels that would be easier to fill with light and maintain. They presented a series of modern flat-roofed buildings, but it didn’t resonate with the community. “We’d been struggling with an architectural language,” says Frontini. An understandable challenge, considering the vernacular context–a mix of ’70s bungalows, century-old farmhouses, developer-built homes and old-fashioned storefronts. They wanted to find a design that jived with its surroundings while also responding to the nearby hardwood forest and the village’s historic roots. After surveying the area, Frontini and his team discovered the community was home to several simple Victorian-era structures, large-spanned with sloped shed roofs and gables, including the 1876 Brooklin Township Hall (now a community centre), the 1848 Brooklin Flour Mill, and the now-demolished Brooklin Saw Mill. “We said, let’s work with that form,” says Frontini. “It was purely a matter of abstracting this idea of agrarian architecture.” Several other early 20th-century timber barns just outside of Brooklin’s core inspired the project’s large scale. 

The team developed an idea of three linked barns that each held a specific purpose: the library in one, the gymnasium in another, and the remaining community services–seniors’ centre, computer lab, youth space and multipurpose rooms–in the third. The wings would weave around the narrow site, making the most of the forest and creek views and allowing for ample daylighting. With that, something clicked. Not just with the community, but within the firm as well. Frontini had already been connecting modern rural aesthetics and the natural environment with projects like the Fathom Five National Park Visitor Centre in Tobermory, completed in 2007. “We were exploring the relationship between these indoor/outdoor spaces and buildings framing courtyards that captured existing vegetation,” he says. “There were a lot of elements in that project that I wanted to take a second crack at.”

At the same time, the concept for Brooklin was very much a departure from previous work by the firm; Frontini sought to evoke a barn-like aesthetic in the simplest terms possible, merging warm materials and an easily relatable shape to modern lines and streamlined volumes. “This was the first time that we had applied a simple shed roof to a structure of this scale,” he says. “We were very concerned about adapting this archetypal form to a modern idiom, in terms of structure, materiality and detailing.” On the exterior, a heavy Wiarton limestone base is balanced by panels from Spanish manufacturer Prodema and ample glazing that reaches all the way to the top of the A-line frame. Wood louvres on the upper windows–installed between the two layers of glazing to minimalize maintenance–are barely visible at night, but by day control glare and solar gain without limiting the entry of natural light from lower windows. 

Situated along the western edge of the site, the community pavilion is set back slightly from the sidewalk behind existing trees and stone benches. Inside the lobby, views of the entire complex can be seen. “We created this common perspective from which you can view the activities on both floors, and walk in the door and get a sense of everything that’s going on,” says Frontini. The lobby also offers an overview of the simple yet warm interior palette. Spruce, pine and fir ceilings, pale oak millwork, a butcher block-style reception desk and oak veneered wall panels merge seamlessly throughout the space, particularly when accented by natural surroundings from virtually every sightline. Despite all the different types of wood in the interior, Frontini sought to keep a simple, uncluttered aesthetic. “We’re trying to create a clean modern language,” he says. 

On the first floor, the wing includes a seniors’ centre designed to facilitate everything from dance classes to euchre tournaments, as well as change rooms, administrative facilities and a multipurpose room that can be rented out for community events. Smaller multipurpose rooms on the second floor accommodate art classes and meetings, adjacent to a youth centre complete with pool table and video game consoles. The barn vernacular is particularly felt in a hayloft-style panel that opens the youth room up to the floor below. A computer lab with floor-to-ceiling glazing overlooks the quiet street below and offers a peek of Brooklin’s downtown core to the east. 

Alongside the community pavilion, the library–the most public element of the building–juts out toward the street. The project’s truss system takes centre stage: though present in all three pavilions, the library affords the most dramatic, uninterrupted view of the streamlined yet highly complex steel cable system. This is especially apparent because its entrance features a lower ceiling that opens up dynamically to the full double height. Panels running along the upper level of the space offer acousti
c protection for readers while mimicking the sliding panels in the entrance area. A large seating area with a stone-clad fireplace anchors the southern edge. The fireplace chimney, jutting out above the three wings, acts like a beacon for the complex and is viewable from downtown. 

At the back of the site, the double-height gymnasium veers off the rear of the community pavilion at a 90-degree angle. While the wing was sited to preserve some of the older trees on the site, it also created an inset courtyard between the library and the gym, bringing more light into all three pavilions and allowing for additional views. The gym’s easternmost wall is completely windowless to avoid light pollution to neighbouring houses. But the glazing on the other walls affords some of the most beautiful views of the whole complex, with the forest to the north and the courtyard to the south. A security shutter isolates the gym and multipurpose room, allowing night-time events such as dances to take place without powering the rest of the building. 

While the community centre’s agrarian references, warm materials and gorgeous views–not to mention its deep roots in local history and surrounding landscape–are all key to the project, it’s perhaps what they stand for that’s even more important: a building constructed to be used. “You want to bring the best design that you can to the situation,” says Frontini. “But it’s got to be design that can take being occupied. It can’t be too precious or too delicate in its expression. The buildings have robust components that should be able to stand up to anything.” That’s a good thing, considering the volume of people the building is designed to serve. The area’s current population of 30,000 represents two subcultures, the locals from the downtown core as well as the ever-growing number of newcomers that populate the periphery. For Frontini, projects such as this have the power to bring these groups together. “A building like this gives them the opportunity to develop a new culture,” he says. “It provides a common space for village residents and for the people in the outlying suburb. It is sited in the village but at a threshold where old fabric gives way to new, so it acts as a gateway to the community.” CA

Paige Magarrey is a Toronto-based architecture and design writer.

Client Town of Whitby, Whitby Public Library
Architect Team Andrew Frontini, Aimee Drmic, D’Arcy Arthurs, Linda Neumayer, Liz Livingston, Sarah Elliot, Gavin Guthrie, Dimitri Simos
Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership
Mechanical Smith + Andersen
Electrical Mulvey + Banani International Inc.
Civil MMM Group
Landscape Fleisher Ridout Partnership
Interiors Perkins+Will Canada Inc.
Contractor Aquicon Construction
Area 48,000 ft2
Budget $12 M
Completion January 2012