Street Smart

PROJECT Hamilton Farmers’ Market and Central Public Library, Hamilton, Ontario
ARCHITECTS RDH Architects Inc. with David Premi Architects Inc.
TEXT Ian Chodikoff
PHOTOS Tom Arban

From the early-to-mid 20th century, Hamilton was a thriving urban centre with factories and heavy industry. By the mid-1960s, the city already began to lose much of its industrial dominance, forcing its economy to develop alternatives to steel refineries and manufacturing. As a testament to its resilience, Hamilton began attracting a wide range of creative industries and entrepreneurs around 10 years ago. Today, young Hamiltonians can be spotted wearing T-shirts emblazoned with slogans that might read “Art is the New Steel.” Less than an hour’s drive west of Toronto, the city is an increasingly attractive alternative for those interested in affordable home ownership and avoiding the stressful commuter traffic that chokes its larger metropolis to the east.

Despite the successful revitalization of Hess Village and the impressive overhaul of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, there remain many challenges to the city’s core. If there is one location in the city that exemplifies these ongoing challenges, Jackson Square would be such a place. Jackson Square is a classic superblock–the result of a once popular process of amalgamating human-scaled and pedestrian-friendly 19th-century city blocks into a singular super-sized city block. In the name of “urban renewal,” the development of Jackson Square in the 1970s was seen as an efficient way to eliminate social problems found in aging and derelict historic buildings, invariably combining small parcels of land into a large indoor shopping centre with labyrinthine circulation patterns linking office buildings above with food courts below. Phase 1 of Jackson Square was completed in 1972, but its last component wasn’t finished until 1985 with the arrival of Copps Coliseum, a 19,000-seat indoor arena.

One of Jackson Square’s most important civic amenities is the Central Public Library and Farmers’ Market. Designed by Anthony Butler and completed in 1980, the Neo-Brutalist concrete architecture completely engulfed the existing farmers’ market that had been in continuous operation since the 1830s–with a six-storey undulating concrete-and-glass structure. As a reminder of the original scale of architecture in the area, the stoic 1853 Coppley Building remains standing across the street, representing a remarkable example of pre-Confederation architecture.

The challenges associated with transforming the Hamilton Central Public Library and Farmers’ Market into a contemporary and pedestrian-friendly environment was immediately apparent to both Rounthwaite Dick and Hadley Architects (RDH) and David Premi Architects (dp.Ai) when they won the commission in early 2008. Their supportive client was Ken Roberts, the Chief Librarian for the Hamilton Public Library. From the outset, the librarian’s goals were clear: he wanted the facility to gain significant street presence. With the Copps Coliseum next door, Roberts also understood “the opportunity to capture people’s interest and cause them to alter their views of the downtown.” By and large, the combined efforts of the architect team and Roberts were successful.

The most striking component to the $13-million project is the ground-floor addition of a 96-metre-long continuous glass vestibule running the entire length of the building and varying in depth from 3.5 to 8.6 metres. This double-glazed ribbon incorporates an ingenious frit pattern on the inside face of the glass panes, abstractly resembling the stacked pages of a book. To maximize the building’s transparency while minimizing construction costs, ultra-clear glazing was used on the lower portions of the exterior curtain wall and on all of the interior partitions built and installed by Ferguson Neudorf, a company headquartered in nearby Beamsville. Adding dynamism to the new curtain wall, numerous strips of LED lighting pulse multi-coloured light at all times of day and night.

At one end of the glass ribbon, an ingenious switch-back barrier-free ramp at the library’s entry incorporates an attractive display. A blank wall at one corner of the entrance will eventually be filled in with art, but the wall at the western edge already includes a lush green wall to help clean and humidify the circulating air. This new entrance, along with the entire north façade, is a welcome alternative to the previous library design, where the children’s storytelling area once offered miserable views out onto the street through poorly insulated windows, capturing the banality of huddled smokers and all varieties of street life conducting their daily business. With ample seating and a cozy fireplace, the redesigned children’s reading area remains a popular destination for families while providing a mesmerizing view of the busy market below.

David Premi was the prime consultant for the entire project. A native Hamiltonian, he worked with RDH in Toronto for nearly seven years before moving back to his hometown several years ago. Standing in his 10-person downtown office overlooking historic Gore Park, Premi is enormously proud to participate in the evolution of his city. The development of a strong relationship with both the client and community allowed him to translate ideas and insight back into the project. Tyler Sharp, a senior associate at RDH, acted as the project designer. He was responsible for much of the technical and design detailing for the commission, efforts which clarified the project’s architecture. For example, he cleverly hid the steel supports between the glass panels over the sliding entry doors, aligning the 40-inch-wide glass panels with the original concrete waffle slabs. Additionally, he helped Premi resolve the tricky double-glazed low-iron section of fritted curved glass terminating each end of the glazed vestibule. All of these devices contributed to the overall success of the design. 

The interiors are minimal and convey the feeling of a retail or museum experience rather than a public library. For security reasons, a 3′-6″ sightline is established throughout the ground floor, yielding a surprisingly open plan. White Corian book stacks, display racks, and work tables reinforce a clean and orderly environment while colourful Cappellini chairs offset the otherwise monochromatic colour palette. The Information Commons is undoubtedly the most popular area of the library, with its 50 computer terminals constantly in use throughout the day. Special holographic film was applied to one side of the glass near the north entrance, but the projection experiment only succeeds at night. This modest achievement enlivens York Boulevard, a street that can use all the animation it can get, despite the fact that it recently reverted to a two-way street–part of a successful city-wide plan to improve the quality of life for pedestrians and small businesses alike. Hamilton was one of several North American cities that greatly suffered when 1950s traffic planners changed many of its arterials into one-way streets.

Visitors enter the farmers’ market from the library’s vestibule or through a number of sliding glass doors that open up to the sidewalk. Several market stalls are located at street level, with the bulk of the 67 vendors located on the lower level. Due to its growing popularity, the farmers’ market is currently operating beyond its 50-stall capacity, so it is inevitable that the current space allotted to the market will eventually expand and take over a portion of the underperforming retail space located in the adjacent Jackson Square Mall.

Since the library’s opening last January, attendance has increased by 20 percent. This upward trend virtually assures that the public lecture rooms, along with the library’s upper floors, will be renovated when more funding becomes available. With the success of both the library and the farmers’ market, one can eas
ily imagine subsequent renovations to Jackson Square where, perhaps, the construction of a wide stairway will eventually draw people up to an existing rooftop terrace. With nearby James Street North undergoing a miniature cultural renaissance of its own, Hamiltonians’ efforts to improve the image of their oft-misunderstood city continues, evolving a city rich in heritage and hometown pride. CA

Clients City of Hamilton and Hamilton Public Library
Architect Team RDH Architects: Bob Goyeche, Tyler Sharp, Cara McKibbin, Bunty Sambhi, Scott Waugh. dp.Ai-david premi Architects inc: David Premi, Magdalena Kisielewska, Roland Mech, Sam Gargarello
Structural/Mechanical/Electrical Group Eight Engineering Ltd.
Contractor Kemp Construction Ltd.
Area 5,525 m2
Budget $13.5 M
Completion February 2011