The Community Library, in Plan and Section: Calder Library and Capilano Library, Edmonton, Alberta

Ceiling lights and services are carefully integrated into the wood slat ceiling of Capilano Library, by Patkau Architects + Group2.

PROJECT Calder Branch Library

ARCHITECTS Atelier TAG and the marc boutin architectural collaborative

PHOTOS Adrien Williams


PROJECT Capilano Library

ARCHITECTS Patkau Architects + Group2

PHOTOS James Dow


TEXT Greg Whistance-Smith

The public library is a uniquely democratic space. Regardless of socio-economic status, visitors are invited to partake in the incredible abundance of modern media: books, films, music, video games, magazines, manga, and more. While “institutional architecture” often carries the negative association of faceless bureaucracies, the space of public libraries suggests a different—and far more egalitarian—world, with a luxurious public realm.

The Edmonton Public Library (EPL)’s progressive spirit is reflected in the range of exceptional libraries constructed in the city in recent years, many of which have already graced these pages. A sprawling city like Edmonton requires a decentralized architectural response, and the EPL has woven itself into the life of the city by deeply investing in its branch libraries.

Edmonton’s collection of new libraries invites a comparative view: how can the architecture of the branch library best embody the contemporary vision of a community gathering place that gives access to diverse media and forms of expression? Two libraries that opened just before the pandemic, Calder and Capilano, have many things in common—total areas of around 1,000 square metres, budgets of about $11 million, similar programs, sites in postwar suburban neighbourhoods, and even expressive metal-clad forms—while offering distinct architectural approaches to this question.

A Floating World of Media

Designed by Atelier TAG and the Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative, Calder Library is located in Edmonton’s northwest, sharing a large suburban park with a school, community hall, and playground. Despite its relatively compact size, “we wanted the library to feel like an expansive place,” says Atelier TAG principal and co-founder Manon Asselin. 

Two wings of Calder Library embrace a generous entry courtyard. Above the main doors, glowing pink panels sit behind metal mesh, a nod to Alberta’s provincial flower, the wild rose.

This initial impulse pushed the designers to explore a building that branches out on its site, resulting in an iteration on the hub-and-spoke floor plans often found in libraries—“our little flower in the landscape,” says Asselin. The asterisk-like plan simultaneously defines outdoor areas around the building, allows for acoustically cloistered zones that are visually connected, and generates an interior experience where the space of the library feels like a superimposition of layers.

The asterisk-shaped plan brings ample daylight throughout the building and creates a variety of intimate areas for reading, study, and socializing.

While developing the project, the architects also uncovered resonances between their design and the area’s history. The branching plan recalls the network of the Grand Trunk Railway that spurred the creation of Calder in 1910, and the intimate interior nods back to a converted tram car that once served as a bookmobile to the neighbourhood.

Approaching the building, one is struck by its sense of elegant rest, floating between earth and sky. Calder’s façade is a refined grid of metallic panels, often with glazing below; its peaceful simplicity serves as a counterpoint to the dynamic plan and interior. The panels are further animated by a back-lit metal mesh that creates a sense of visual diffusion, particularly during Edmonton’s long winter nights.

Visitors arrive at the library through an eastern plaza defined by two wings. The entrance is highlighted with soft pink panels behind the grey mesh—a colour that recalls the winter sky at dawn and dusk, and Alberta’s provincial flower, the wild rose. Cherry trees dot the plaza, amplifying this pink with their blossoms each spring. 

A freestanding fireplace forms a cozy hearth at the centre of the library.

Once inside, visitors find themselves at heart of the library, with program areas fanning out in all directions. A circular information desk is located at this convergence, but its central position is intentionally diffused by the space-age fireplace suspended from the ceiling nearby. “The plan has a weaker centre than a library with a central control point,” says Asselin. Surrounded by lounge chairs, the fireplace suggests that the library is to be enjoyed as a community living room.

Linear ceiling lights and pops of colour add to the dynamism of the space.

Calder’s clean interior has a limited palette of white, grey, and metallic-framed glass: the walls, faceted ceiling, and much of the furniture are all bright white. This was intended to allow the changing tones of Edmonton’s natural light to define the space. However, the bold patches of colour provided by EPL’s wall graphics, some seating, and the library’s collection result in a layered, graphic quality. Scanning the room feels akin to flipping through a magazine or scrolling a website, and Calder’s architecture invites visitors to wander this floating world of information and expression.

A Folded Profile Among the Trees

Heading east of Edmonton’s downtown, Capilano is sited in a mature suburb along an orphaned ravine that once connected to the North Saskatchewan River Valley. Designed by Patkau Architects and Group2, it embraces the found potential of this site by pairing a bold sectional profile with a linear plan that gets as close to the ravine and road as the city would permit.

Capilano Library’s bold, folded roof creates a variety of interior and exterior spaces.

While Calder branches out in plan, Capilano is boldly sectional: its folded profile is extruded 77 metres along the ravine with articulation only present at the ends, resulting in a monolithic form grounded in its landscape. This sense of repose is strengthened by the slanted wall facing the neighbourhood, whose street-level windows have been cleverly screened with perforated metal panels that emphasize the mass and modulate views.

A large entrance canopy welcomes library patrons and provides shelter from wind, rain and snow during inclement weather.

Aiming to both protect the ravine and extend its ecosystem towards the street, Capilano’s monolithic form will fade into the trees as the landscaping grows in. The strategy was influenced by John and Patricia Patkau’s years living in Edmonton early in their careers. “Edmonton has a limited landscape palette, and it takes a long time to establish a mature landscape there,” says John Patkau. “We [principal Greg Boothroyd and I] had a strong reaction during the initial site visit that the building should serve as a buffer to help preserve the ravine.” This becomes particularly clear in winter storms: the western façade gains a thin layer of snow in blowing wet conditions, transforming the library into a landform.

The library’s cross-section is developed with three differently sized peaks: an intimately scaled one overlooking the ravine, a lofty central peak with spaces for stacks, staff, and community below, and a western peak that houses a quiet edge of support spaces facing the street.

Arriving from the road or parking lot, visitors encounter Capilano’s evocative profile, here carved out to form a generous entry canopy that gives a taste of the warmth to be found inside. The inner surface of the folded roof is lined in a beautifully rhythmic pattern of Douglas fir, using the woven wood vocabulary developed in Patkau Architects’ material research and also explored in their Whistler and Thunder Bay art galleries. The wood effectively recontextualizes the metal envelope in these projects, resulting in an aesthetic pairing of organic and industrial that speaks to life in the Canadian Northwest.

Wood-screen clerestories on the western side of the building contribute to the daylit interior, including bringing natural light into a children’s playspace.

Capilano’s section brilliantly organizes its plan while washing the interior in warm light. Responding to the flexibility desired by modern libraries, its peaks create three zones that carry through the building: an intimate strip facing the ravine, an airy hall down the middle, and a residential-scaled area facing the suburb. The program areas naturally gravitate to their appropriate zones, and the consistent section belies the lovely spatial diversity to be found inside. Perhaps most surprisingly, Capilano’s design can be read as a nave with aisles, and it brings the pleasant modulation of scale that this ancient form offers.

Varied seating is arrayed alongside a continuous strip of windows on the north side of the building, offering sweeping views of the adjacent ravine landscape.

In a move recalling the light monitors of Aalto’s libraries, strips of west-facing windows are located along two roof peaks to capture the low winter sun. The wooden screen filter creates a spectacular display of light and shadow in the interior that evokes the qualities of Edmonton’s forests in the warm hues of autumn. Circular columns echo the dimensions of nearby trees, and a radiant red carpet grounds the interior like the dogwood underbrush of the ravine, reinforcing the library’s warm embrace.

Worm’s Eye Axonometric


Two Visions

While Calder imagines the library as a diffuse space of abundant media, Capilano settles into its ravine-side location, offering a sheltered oasis to read, study, and enjoy views of nature. Both respond to the need for contemporary branch libraries to be robust community spaces with diverse media, rather than simply repositories of books, and both offer visitors a strong sense of place. As young Edmontonians grow up with these exceptional buildings, one hopes they will develop a passion for the library as prior generations have, guiding its evolution through this century and beyond. 

Greg Whistance-Smith is an Intern Architect in Edmonton, and author of the recent book Expressive Space: Embodying Meaning in Video Game Environments (De Gruyter, 2022).


Calder Branch Library

CLIENT City of Edmonton | ARCHITECT TEAM Atelier TAG—Manon Asselin (FRAIC), Katsuhiro Yamazaki, Jason Treherne, Ange Sauvage. MBAC—Marc Boutin (FRAIC), Nathaniel Wagenaar | STRUCTURAL Fast + Epp | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Williams Engineering | LANDSCAPE PFS Studio | INTERIORS Atelier TAG and MBAC | CONTRACTOR EllisDon | LEED Morrison Hershfield | AREA 935 M2 | BUDGET $6.1 M | COMPLETION September 2019


Capilano Library

CLIENT City of Edmonton | ARCHITECT TEAM Patkau—Greg Boothroyd (FRAIC), Shane O’Neill, John Patkau (FRAIC), Patricia Patkau (FRAIC), Thomas Schroeder. Group2—Anneliese Fris, Eric Hui, Gareth Leach, Jennifer Nederpel | STRUCTURAL Fast + Epp | MECHANICAL Williams Engineering | ELECTRICAL WSP | LANDSCAPE Design North | INTERIORS Patkau Architects | CONTRACTOR PCL Constructors | TRAFFIC Acumen, Bunt & Associates | CIVIL ISL | ACOUSTICS RWDI | AREA 1,130 M2 | BUDGET $11.8 M | COMPLETION November 2018