Room To Read

Project Whistler Public Library, Whistler, British Columbia

Architect Hughes Condon Marler: Architects

Text Leslie Jen

Photos Martin Tessler Known by most as a winter playground for the wealthy, the town of Whistler is, in fact, an intriguing community with a diverse population. Currently numbering at around 10,000 full-time residents, the village also employs 2,500-3,000 transient/seasonal workers. With a steady stream of part-time residents and tourists, the population averages close to 30,000, and during peak periods, can swell to an astonishing 55,000. Its popularity is understandable: one of the Great White North’s most frequented resort destinations, Whistler offers breathtaking mountain scenery along with fantastic skiing, hiking and rock-climbing opportunities. Consequently, the last 15 years have witnessed a massive construction boom, with high-end condominiums sprouting up in and around the town, jockeying for position with the countless hotels, bars and restaurants servicing outdoor adventure-seekers from around the world.

The maturation and growth of the community has necessitated expansion of its public facilities. Housed in a portable structure since the late 1980s, the original Whistler Public Library was located in the heart of what is now a densely built-up village. As this was never intended to be a long-term solution, the community has been in discussions concerning a new library building since the early 1990s. In 2002, Hughes Condon Marler: Architects (HCMA) was retained to tackle a dual program comprising both library and museum functions. Differences in process and objective between library and museum stalled the project indefinitely, which eventually resulted in the two institutions going their separate ways. In 2004, the library project alone was resurrected, with HCMA once again at the helm, steering the project over the next few years through a rigorous and integrated design process that engaged the community and public at large.

Despite the rugged and majestic geographical context of Whistler, increased development over the years has resulted in a definite urban quality to the town. Public transit is excellent, and a number of pedestrian-friendly plazas along with an extensive path network called the “Village Stroll” successfully link the buildings together. California-based landscape architect Eldon Beck is largely responsible for the community’s design, having been retained as one of Whistler’s original planners in the 1970s. Influenced by the ideology of Christopher Alexander, Beck advocated for the inclusion of many human-scaled elements such as benches and low walls to encourage a real sense of community interaction and engagement. In fact, deferential to Beck even to this day, the project’s clients insisted that the HCMA design team fly to the US to present the scheme to the venerable guru in his California office for his approval. Initially meeting with resistance, principal Darryl Condon eventually won Beck over through an articulate and well-reasoned presentation.

Constructed on what was the second-last undeveloped parcel of land in the village–a former surface parking lot close to where the old library portable sat, the new L-shaped library responds to both the urban fabric of the village and the adjacent densely forested park–the largest in Whistler Village. With the main entry facing south towards Main Street, the library is nestled within a fairly dense cluster of hotels all accessible from the pedestrianized Village Stroll. A civic plaza draws visitors into the vestibule and through a set of doors to the main stacks area, where the real drama of the space unfolds. Sloping up towards the north, the exposed structure of the soaring roof is rhythmically expressed in hemlock. A high-performance curtain wall offers unimpeded views of the evergreens in the adjacent park as well as distant views of Sprott Moun tain, and allows the space to be suffused with even north light, ideal for reading and other tasks.

Project architect Bill Uhrich maintains that there is a dual aspect the project: while the library is ostensibly about books, information, and technology in sustaining and promoting the intellectual culture of Whistler, it is equally about its relationship to site and the larger context of the mountains. HCMA examined European precedents to facilitate a strong connection to the outdoors and to mountain culture, looking specifically at the architecture of the Alps. Consequently, light and views of the surrounding mountains are always present, and two outdoor reading terraces reinforce the perpetual connection to the outdoors, as does the sheltered arcade that runs along the east elevation.

Numerous sustainability strategies were implemented to create the greenest building possible. The provision of end-of-trip facilities encourages non-vehicular forms of transportation like cycling, and as such, bicycle parking, change rooms, lockers and washrooms are located on the lowest level, accessed through a separate entrance at the northeast corner of the building. In addition to a green roof, deep overhangs on the south and east elevations minimize solar gain, which is major consideration during Whistler’s surprisingly hot, dry summers. The heavy timber construction respects the vernacular building tradition of the area, but the uncommon use of hemlock represents a more sustainable choice than other woods that are typically used, such as Douglas fir and cedar. But to compensate for hemlock’s structural inconsistencies, the HCMA team developed an innovative roof system of prefabricated laminated panels that were vertically staggered to address this shortcoming. This allows for a shallow structural zone, reducing exterior cladding quantities while maximizing light and views. Strategies such as these will likely earn the building a LEED Gold rating.

Another project advancement is the counter-intuitive choice to go against the steeply pitched roofs that characterize the region. Heavy, wet snow can weigh as much as 160 pounds per square foot, resulting in inordinately high roof-loading situations. HCMA sought the advice of a snow-management consultant, who suggested keeping as much snow on the roof as possible, to take advantage of the insulatory properties of the snow, and to minimize the amount of snow dump on the ground, which would otherwise impede pedestrian circulation. The resulting folded roof plane keeps snow on the roof and off the ground at critical entry points into the building, giving the library a more authentic formal expression unique amongst the identical cookie-cutter chalets that dot the village.

Unfortunately, Whistler has acquired an unsettling Disneyfied quality typical of most Intrawest resorts: Blue Mountain, Tremblant, Panorama … the list goes on. As an antidote, the Whistler Public Library represents a courageous deviation from the global sameness and forced quaintness of the unrelenting flat pastel stucco faades, and remains true to Whistler’s original planning principles. Additionally, it rewards the community for its resilience, initiative and independent spirit with a truly democratic place of gathering and learning. Tourists and residents–both permanent and transient–have responded overwhelmingly: over the past year, the number of daily visitors has increased by 300% from about 300 to roughly 1,000 per day. And for their efforts, HCMA can bask in the glory of receiving the 2008 Real Cedar Award from the Canadian Wood Council this past November. CA

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Client Resort Municipality Of Whistler

Architect Team Darryl Condon, Bill Uhrich, Kurt McLaren, Julia Mogensen, Jay Lin, Kayna Merchant

Structural Fast + Epp Structural Engineers

Mechanical Stantec Engineering

Electrical Acumen Engineering

Landscape Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg

Cost Consultant
Hanscomb

Code Consultant LMDG

Building Envelope Consultant RDH Group

Builder Whistler Construction Company

Ground Floor Area 1,400 m2

Budget $12 m

Completion January 2008

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