True Colours: Albion Library, Toronto, Ontario
Like many suburban libraries, the boxy Toronto Public Library (TPL) Albion branch in Etobicoke, Ontario, had evolved over the years into a heavily trafficked, all-ages community centre. The demographically diverse suburb’s large immigrant families, many jammed into tiny apartments, were relying heavily on the library’s space and computers; small business owners were operating their virtual companies out of reading rooms; and teens have taken refuge from gang rivalries there in what they view as a neutral zone.
In 2013, when TPL officials declared that they would close the local branch for two years to complete a long over-due renovation, local residents expressed their feelings in no uncertain terms. They said they’d rather leave it unrenovated than close it for that long, recalls Susan Martin, the TPL’s manager of branch capital planning. Lead architect Andrew Frontini of Perkins+Will Canada worked with TPL to devise an elegant alternative: erecting a new structure in the parking lot immediately to the west of the existing building. The 1970s-era Albion branch had an adjacent 120-space parking lot, but a 2013 user survey revealed that most patrons arrived on foot or by transit. That finding compelled TPL to commission the new structure on the little-used parking lot instead, which allowed the branch to remain open during almost all of the rebuilding process. The new branch, which opened earlier this year, presents a striking visual and functional contrast to its predecessor. Martin says the TPL was eager to commission a design that gives passersby a clear glimpse of all the activity taking place inside.
Frontini’s design emphasizes light, transparency, natural materials anda warm, harvest-like colour palette that extends from the extruded glazed terra cotta slats on the street-facing facade into the three interior courtyards. The 29,000 sq.-ft building is a rectangular box with a steel-frame roof, central clerestory and ceilings made from Douglas fir beams and cedar planks. The angled configuration of the slats and corner curtain wall windows gives the one-storey structure the appearance of having had its corners lifted. Adds Frontini, “My daughter is eight and she said, `It looks like [an open] book.’”
Frontini, who has built municipal libraries for the cities of Whitby, Orillia and Mississauga, describes these public and broadly accessible commissions as “the least elitist buildings in which you can do architecture.” At the TPL, the world’s largest municipal library system, the branches go well beyond books and now offer a range of non-traditional spaces and services, including language classes for newcomers, 3D printing rooms, fabrication space, and, in the case of the Albion branch, a shared work space area used by local entrepreneurs to run their businesses. The TPL has been moving towards increasingly diverse and community- oriented programming for several years. According to Frontini, new-build library design, which stress this multi-functional approach, originated in Nordic and northern European countries, and landed in North America in 2004, with OMA/LMN Architects’ 2004 Seattle Central Library, which he describes as a “watershed moment.” By way of example, Frontini points to the branch’s 3,000 sq-ft “urban living room” and the adjacent 1,500 sq.-ft meeting space (the two are separated by a glass accordion wall). The low white oak shelving, for newspapers and magazines, is all moveable, as are the armchairs and tables, which means the space has the flexibility to handle a range of local events, such as video game-coding workshops.
The three interior courtyards, explains landscape architect John Hillier, a partner with DTAH Partners, were designed to provide ready access to outdoor spaces from within the library, and are geared to different user groups. The one near the children’s section has a bouncy surface that allows young visitors to blow off energy between reading or learning activities. The other two feature benches and tables, with a minimal amount of planting. The courtyards have a secondary function, which is to allow indirect light into the library’s interior spaces. The angled exterior multi-hued cladding breaks up the long, low facades of the library. The exposed timber roof joists begin outside, in a covered and welcomingly spacious entrance area, and extend through into the interior, creating a sense of porousness. Library users are greeted by a check-out counter framed by a striking abstract wall mural – entitled “The Long Passage Towards Night,” by Jacob Hashimoto for Maharam Digital Projects – that conceals the administrative offices in one corner.
The back-of-house functions, in fact, have been centralized in a single zone with visibility on all areas of the library, which allows staff to monitor the entire space. Functional zones, study rooms and special purpose meeting spaces off the main collections area use sound dampening techniques, such as glass curtain walls and noise cancelling ceiling panels, to prevent sound from traveling. And the branch features a range of different seating types for children, teens and adults. “It’s an intricate little puzzle,” Martin says.
Outside, in the reduced parking lot (now down to 65 spaces), Hiller notes that the landscaping will feature multi-hued grey brick pavers, natural species plantings and pathways so the space can be transformed into an urban plaza for community events.
The net effect is a district branch that subtly but undeniably declares its presence on a five-lane arterial lined by malls, parking lots and drivethroughs. The renovation offers “eyes on the street” and also draws eyes to the building itself: library traffic has jumped by 44% over pre-reno levels, which were already substantial, given its popularity in the area. As Frontini says, “This is a vital public space for the community.”
John Lorinc is a Toronto journalist who writes frequently about urban affairs for Spacing, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.