Reading the Future

PROJECT Surrey City Centre Library, Surrey, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Bing Thom Architects
TEXT Tanya Southcott
PHOTOS Nic Lehoux

Last December’s inauguration of Surrey’s Mayor and Council marked a significant step towards the transformation of Metro Vancouver’s sprawling suburb into what is anticipated to be the province’s next cosmopolitan centre. The ceremony, traditionally performed in Council Chambers, was instead set against the panoramic view of nearly $100 million in construction activity committed to creating a burgeoning civic precinct and catalyst for future growth and investment in the city. From the vantage of the grand cascading stair in the atrium of the new Surrey City Centre Library, over 300 in attendance were witness to the impact of architecture on the evolving identity of the city.

An integral component in the development of City Centre (one of six town centres in Surrey, otherwise referred to as North Surrey or Whalley) and the Build Surrey program for capital projects, the construction of the Civic Centre over the next five years will include the new City Hall (scheduled for completion in September 2013), a performing arts centre, a Simon Fraser University expansion and civic plaza, as well as additional commercial and residential space. At the heart of the development, the area bound by University Drive, 104 Avenue and the City Parkway, City Hall and the new regional library will form a fractured arrowhead to the northeast corner that filters pedestrians from the streets to the public core of the city, a generous open space designed to accommodate up to 5,000 people at a time. As the first parcel of the site to be constructed, the library anchors the development with a landmark architectural gesture by Vancouver-based firm Bing Thom Architects (BTA) that celebrates both the community’s investment in literacy and its commitment to the future growth of the city.

According to Surinder Bhogal, Deputy Chief Librarian and former manager of the Whalley branch previously located on the northeast corner of the site, this library is a critical space for the community of North Surrey as it transitions towards the city’s metropolitan centre. Housed in an old plumbing store for over 30 years, the Whalley Library catered predominantly to a population of immigrants, refugees, low-income families and senior citizens who relied heavily on the programs and services available in the neighbourhood facility. Now at almost eight times the floor area with over triple the staff, the new City Centre Library must continue to service its local community while meeting the aspirations of a regional facility.

Public consultation and community engagement in both the design and construction of the new facility was instrumental in creating a sense of pride and ownership for the neighbourhood. “It is impossible for the library to be all things to all people,” Bhogal maintains. “But above all, it must be open to everybody.” Built as part of the federal government’s Economic Action Plan, the project was subject to a strict 18-month schedule in order to qualify for federal stimulus funding and a matching amount by the province. Although local librarians had already composed their wish list in anticipation of the regional facility, the critical timeline challenged the design team to engage the public in less conventional ways. BTA worked with library staff to integrate social media into their marketing strategies for the new building, setting up blog, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr accounts to communicate construction progress and to encourage community members to contribute images and ideas about what they wanted to see in their library. The team also met with local high school students over sketchbooks and kits of modelling clay to generate concepts for furniture, an exercise that inspired hammock-styled lounges and pod-like listening chairs designed to make the library visit a unique experience.

For Bing Thom, founding principal of BTA, the library remains a unique civic space whose role for modern communities is continually evolving. Closer to the community or recreation centre in function than a repository for collections of books and other print material, today’s library is fundamentally a gathering space that brings people together. It is a social experience that must simultaneously support individual contemplation and active collaboration. “A good library should not distract but engage its users,” says Thom. “People come to feel inspired by other people and books.”

Surrey City Centre Library prioritizes people by placing users at the centre of the building’s experience. From the formal entry off the future civic plaza, library-goers enter directly into the heart of the building, a generous amoeba-shaped atrium, where they are welcomed by staff at the circulation desk and café first rather than being instantly overwhelmed by labyrinthine stacks of books. Unlike a more traditional reading sanctuary, this space is filled with sounds of civic engagement–children giggling, tour guides lecturing, strains of random conversations and construction noise–that percolate through the open volume. The grand staircase directly adjacent is both stair and seating, with concrete steps and wide wooden ledges that promise the ideal spot to enjoy a coffee while reading a paper in the morning sun. This is the beginning of the sculptural balustrade, a thick white band that weaves through the entire space carrying the eye upward towards the glowing halo skylight, and marking the circulation path through the public areas of the building. From this vantage, the library is easily understood, and visitors are able to quickly orient themselves and locate their desired destination.

There is a fluidity of space in the library ascent that undulates between generous open areas that are sometimes multiple storeys in height for larger displays and less formal activities, and intimate nooks reserved for more specific focused tasks. Seating and social areas feature more domestic furniture, plush leather armchairs, low coffee tables and oversized floor lamps; even a freestanding fireplace brings warmth, comfort and a sense of scale to an otherwise oversized space. Almost one year after opening, the building still feels less than full, and its harsher critics argue its bulk as a waste of space. Fortunately, the flexibility of the floor plate is designed to allow the community to grow into the building as their collection expands and new programming needs arise. To date, the size and scale of the facility together with its range of available spaces have inspired programming such as Imagine Surrey, an urban planning forum to engage architects, developers and planners in the transformation of North Surrey, and an extension of Doors Open Surrey, where architects lecture on the evolving area and nearby developments. The completion of City Hall’s 230-seat auditorium and the civic plaza promises opportunities for cross-programming, and the ability to attract an even broader audience. 

From University Drive, the concrete-and-glass structure has been described as both a ship set to sea and an open book resting gently on its spine. Generated by the curve of the road and the area master plan, the dynamic form twists horizontally to engage the ground plane. South and west façades are largely architectural concrete, with floor-to-ceiling glazing to the north and east opening up the building to the most public and pedestrian-oriented space, the civic plaza. The splayed walls are designed to protect the library stacks from direct sun while flooding the remaining space with natural light. White plaster finish and angled surfaces bounce light deep into the building so that the entire space glows with an ambient light ideal for reading,
like a lantern illuminated from the inside. 

Efficiency of construction was critical to the project’s success, and the design team worked with PERIform, a German formwork product to create walls that curve and slope simultaneously, with an architecturally exposed concrete finish on both inside and outside faces. After their experience using the product at the University of British Columbia’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, BTA saved critical time by completing shop drawings in house, and helped train crews on site. The modular design relies on one specialized form–the curve used at the windows–strategically mirrored and rotated throughout the elevations to create visual interest while managing cost and schedule.

While the original project brief called for three storeys at 65,000 square feet of useable space, BTA estimated the city would outgrow this facility in less than three years’ time, given Surrey’s current growth rate of nearly 10,000 new residents annually. The firm convinced the client to invest in a fourth floor which has been leased to Simon Fraser University as their Continuing Education satellite campus, a win-win strategy for both institutions as it increases the reach of the library while providing for its future growth. Since its inception, BTA has built a reputation on their holistic approach to architecture, by balancing elegant and timeless design solutions with innovative and progressive strategies for pushing projects beyond their initial vision. At the crux of this interdisciplinary perspective is the desire to build sustainable communities by recognizing that the built environment and the economic and social conditions of the community are closely intertwined. Surrey City Centre Library brings value to its community not only as an engaging work of architecture, but as an investment in the betterment of its citizens, and represents a critical piece of civic infrastructure designed to secure a prosperous future for the city. CA

Tanya Southcott is a Vancouver-based architect and writer.

Client City of Surrey/Surrey Public Library
Architect Team Bing Thom, Michael Heeney, Venelin Kokalov, Ling Meng, Francis Yan, John Camfield, Shinobu Homma, Robert Sandilands, Marcos Hui, Lisa Potopsingh, Harald Merk, Berit Wooge, Dan Du, Michael Motlagh, Nicole Hu
Structural Fast + Epp
Electrical Applied Engineering Solutions
Mechanical AME Consulting Group
Landscape Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg
Interiors Bing Thom Architects
Contractor Stuart Olson Dominion (formerly Dominion Fairmile Construction Ltd.)
Geotechnical EXP Services Inc. (formerly Trow Consulting Engineers)
Building Code LMDG Building Code Consultants
Traffic Bunt & Associates
Quantity Surveying/Costing LEC Quantity Surveying Inc.
Building Envelope Morrison Hershfield
Acoustic Brown & Strachan
Project Manager Turnbull Construction Services Ltd.
Area 82,000 ft2
Budget $26.5 M
Completion Fall 2011