Reading Room

Project Winnipeg Centennial Library, Millennium Project, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Architect Patkau Architects/Lm Architectural Group

Text Herb Enns

Photos James Dow

1967 was a bumper year for Winnipeg architecture. Enthusiasm for Canada’s 100th birthday spilled out of Ottawa into the provinces. Most of the bounty pooled in Montreal for EXPO ’67, but some trickled into the more remote–but nevertheless loyal–regions of the country. Civic and provincial funding mixed with federal grants to create a strong nationalistic cocktail to finance construction projects across the country. The steely, spidery, brown Centennial Hall (our own Centre Georges Pompidou) at the University of Winnipeg, the stylish Centennial Concert Hall (a new home for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet), and even the modest changing rooms for the sea-blue outdoor St. Vital (Centennial) Pool were beholden to the great centenary cultural construction project.

It took almost a decade for the feverish building boom to die down. The Manitoba Theatre Centre (1970), the Winnipeg Art Gallery (1971), and the Winnipeg Centennial Library (1976) completed a full suite of centenary cultural projects in Winnipeg. The distinctive characteristics of the last of the civic buildings included the use of precast concrete and stone to create weighty solid artifacts in a Brutalist reaction following two decades of Modernist steel and glass lightness, openness, and air.

Downtown Winnipeg has no shortage of open space, but most of it contains ruinous city-spoiling on-grade parking. While the spatial capacity for significant new development exists, the city suffers from a lack of economic stimulus to justify large capital investment, and it continues to project a sense of stasis in a precinct where, except for the replacement of the T. Eaton Building (1904) with a hockey arena, little has changed in 30 years.

The city has managed to preserve and upgrade a wonderful system of urban parks. Central Park, Memorial Boulevard, Broadway (one of Canada’s grandest urban avenues), the Forks, and the Assiniboine River Walk ring the downtown core. However, finely detailed small-scale urban parks within the downtown core are rare. Exceptions include the Maitland Steinkopf Gardens at the Centennial Concert Hall and the rooftop terrace of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The urge to appropriate courtyard spaces–as happened at the Winnipeg International Airport and the University of Winnipeg’s Centennial Hall–offers an easy out for building expansion plans.

Tackling the renovation and expansion of the fossilized Winnipeg Centennial Library–made of a stubborn cast-in-place concrete frame with heavy precast concrete cladding–could not have been an easy task. A sunlit garden and reflecting pool on the south side–while in a state of decay–softened the impact of the coarse structure. The garden made up in some measure for the loss to pedestrians of the east and west sidewalks, which where cut off by access ramps to an underground parking structure.

The Patkaus, known for their affinity with landscape and for their ephemeral architecture, were painted into a difficult urban corner. Located in a canyon between the former Eaton building and the one-block-big and largely windowless Winnipeg General Post Office (1955), the library required more space, more light, and more air for its more than 300,000 library cardholders.

The route to recovery for the heavy-handed original–driven by a massive community fund-raising campaign organized by the Winnipeg Library Foundation and spearheaded by a $1-million Richardson Foundation contribution–was a proposal for a refined and delicate armature of light steel built on top of the existing structure. The Patkaus’ spatial/social strategy was to apply a kind of urban prosthetic to the building. They proposed an interior “street” leading from the main north-side entrance through the building to a south-facing glass-wrapped scaffolding for the citizens of Winnipeg to climb.

Resisting the impulse to sprawl and conquer, the Patkaus chose to preserve the garden on the south side of the site and to emphasize it by inventing a vertical transparent backdrop to enclose a new indoor topography of sloped reading terraces–vertical relief for a horizontal city.

The tracery-like structural lattice of the new four-storey-high glass wall filters south light falling across a terrace of study carrels, deep into the library. Reorganizing the entire collection for greater legibility and ease of access, the architects proposed a series of zones moving from the park, through public reading and lounge spaces, to study areas, low stacks, and finally high stacks. The main reading room and non-fiction collection have been moved from the main floor to the former rooftop level. Here a vast double-height space is lit from above with a continuous skylight along the expansive north wall. The two zones of light–ambient skylight and filtered sunlight–mix above the reading stacks.

Colour in the building is centred on two new art works: the double-height Untitled (2004-2005) by Cliff Eyland (with a series of more than 1,000 3* 5 paintings), and The Illumination (2004-2005), a red and white tangle of three steel letters by Lethbridge artist Nicholas Wade. Beyond these chromatic “hot spots”–the first at the double-height entrance, and the second at the hinge between “street” and stair–the colour palette for the project is subdued and neutral. Borrowing from the browns of the original ’70s project, the stoic helvetical annunciation of the Dewey Decimal System-coordinated collection zones give emphasis to the serenity and silent ambience of the space.

Winnipeg’s introverted and claustrophobic +15 circulation system (calling it a skywalk is a misnomer) is given definition with a new two-storey-high relief chamber at the library’s northwest corner, where pedestrians can drop back down to earth to enjoy Eyland’s mural project, a caf, and a gift shop alongside the main entrance. This generous gesture of public access breaks into the library’s formerly private and silent past, and releases it from its cloistered precast concrete shell.

Patricia Patkau, a graduate of the University of Manitoba’s Interior Design program, has no known design works in Winnipeg, while John Patkau designed a house for his family on Palk Street. The Millennium Library represents a homecoming for the Patkaus. A second major commission, the 8,000-square-metre Centre for Music, Art and Design (which received a Canadian Architect Award of Excellence in 2005) at the University of Manitoba is entering the design development phase.

A Modernist trajectory for design in Winnipeg–relentlessly promoted by John A. Russell, the Dean of the Faculty of Architecture during the ’50s and ’60s–generated a series of light and light-filled buildings. The Patkaus’ allegiance to these founding Modernist principles remains true and intact in much of their work. Notwithstanding their phenomenological and organic reputation, their program to revitalize and expand the Centennial Library was directed by the very principles that the library’s original designers had disregarded. They have reminded us of the core principles necessary for architecture to succeed in Winnipeg: broad community support, a resourcefulness of means, spaces that address social interaction in a multicultural milieu, and the artful manipulation of abundant prairie light.

Herbert Enns is Contributing Editor to Canadian Architect, Professor of Architecture and Director of the New Media Program at the University of Manitoba.

Client City of Winnipeg Library Services/City of Winnipeg Planning, Property, and Development Department

Architect Team Patkau Architects: Samantha Hayes, Maureen Kwong, Hector Lo, Imke Maron, Tokimi Ota, John Patkau, Patricia Patkau, Christian Schulte, Craig Simms, Yong Sun, Peter Suter. Lm
Architectural Group: David Kressock, Ken Duchnycz, Andrew Brimble, Greg Tomaszewski, Lloyd Mymko, Brent Mehyden, Robert Winslow, Ron Kinash.

Structural Crosier Kilgour & Partners Ltd.

Mechanical SMS Engineering Ltd.

Electrical MCW/AGE Consulting Professional Engineers

Landscape Hilderman Thomas Frank Cram

Code Gage-Babcock and Associates Ltd.

Acoustic Daniel Lyzun Associates

Contractor Manshield Construction

Area 115,000 Ft2 (Renovation), 45,000 Ft2 (Addition)

Budget $16m

Completion Fall 2005