Welland Good

PROJECT Welland Civic Square: New City Hall and Library, Welland, Ontario

ARCHITECT CS&P Architects Inc. in association with Venerino V.P. Panici, Architect Inc.

TEXT Leslie Jen

PHOTOS Tom Arban, unless otherwise noted

In keeping with the sustainability theme of this issue, the Welland Civic Square project addresses this topic within a community context–how architecture can sustain a languishing city that has lost its main industry. With a population approaching 50,000, Welland lies in the Regional Municipality of Niagara, and is distinguished by the presence of waterways–the Welland Canal and the Welland River. This, in addition to its position on an extensive rail network linking Buffalo to Toronto and the rest of southwestern Ontario, made it a desirable centre of export and heavy industry in the early 20th century.

Since Welland’s economy was traditionally centred on steel fabrication and manufacturing, the city–particularly downtown–has suffered noticeably from the downturn in the steel industry which accelerated in the 1990s. Exhibiting tenacity and resilience, the community actively sought new opportunities for economic growth, and has attracted the establishment of a number of corporate call centres as well as the Canadian Tire Financial Services headquarters.

However, the general climate of economic decline and subsequent fiscal restraint made the realization of Welland Civic Square a particularly contentious process. Some felt that it was a questionable expense for a city with limited resources, but despite the community’s initial hesitation over whether or not the project should proceed, most are convinced that it was the right decision. The building’s popularity and success as a community hub and civic symbol makes the victory that much sweeter for proponents of the project.

Programmatically, the building comprises two major civic functions: City Hall and Welland Public Library, both of which existed independently in separate locations previously. Siting the building centrally on a triangular wedge of land downtown on East Main Street–adjacent to both the Welland Canal and the historic courthouse–defines a focus for the city and makes eminent sense from a historical and geographical perspective. Urban revitalization was a most pressing objective of the project, and was achieved through a design strategy intended to connect East Main Street to Welland’s historic canal lands through a sequence of walkways and public plazas.

While obviously a new addition to a streetscape that has seen better days, the building and adjacent public spaces were carefully configured to infill and preserve the low-rise scale of the neighbouring buildings. Material choice was also respectful of context, so red brick comprises the majority of the building’s cladding, complementing the clean and refined palette of concrete, glass, aluminum and copper.

The sloping grade of the site was exaggerated to create essentially two ground floors and two separate entrances. The library faces the canal to the north and is easily accessible from the adjacent parking lot, while City Hall and municipal government functions occupy the two floors above the library, accessible directly from East Main Street at the south end of the building. Sadly, despite the architects’ suggestion to convert East Main Street into a pedestrian- and vehicle-friendly two-way street to encourage stopping, parking and lingering, it remains a one-way only traffic thoroughfare, ridiculous for a city of this size where heavy traffic is clearly not a problematic issue.

As outdoor public space is integral to any urban revitalization initiative, two important plazas were created in this project. Janet Rosenberg + Associates Landscape Architects were involved in this vital intervention designed to engage the public with the site and the canal, achieved through a very rich and elegant treatment of the ground plane. A lower canal-level plaza outside the library entrance is connected to the redeveloped canal lands, and boasts a small outdoor amphitheatre suitable for impromptu or planned performances. An abandoned aqueduct became a defining wall for the new rose garden, and a number of viewing bridges span the garden with views toward the canal. Soft landscaping was achieved through the selection of tall prairie grasses and other appropriate plantings, framed as poetic glimpses through the building’s many openings.

An upper-level plaza fronting East Main Street extends the primary City Hall entrance and functions as the major civic plaza for the city, anchored by the copper-clad freighter-like volume of the top-floor council chamber at the southwest corner. The open end of the plaza’s eastern parameter is marked by Welland’s historic courthouse building, a limestone Palladian-styled structure built in 1855, establishing a dialogue with the council chamber in this carefully considered civic composition. Defining the plaza’s street edge is a shallow reflecting pool which transforms into a skating rink in the winter, encouraging activity and inhabitation of the space year round.

In keeping with the strategy to maximize the number of linkages and the degree of connectivity between the canal and the streets comprising Welland’s urban fabric, the architects created yet another significant outdoor public space at the site’s western edge via the development of a gently sloping ramp and stairs that connect the upper-level plaza and a pedestrian route from a farmer’s market south of the site to the water’s edge. Besides creating a sectionally rich experience adjacent to the stair, the wide ramp addresses the practical concern of ensuring handicap access to the canal and the lower-level plaza. Another link is created through a transparent glazed bridging element on the second floor connecting the separate volume of the council chamber with the primary building mass, forming an additional interior public route between the two plazas.

Despite occupying different floors, the division between the library and City Hall is seamless, as is the division between building and landscape, achieved through the provision of skillful openings and voids throughout the building’s mass. Everywhere, glimpses of other portions of the building and continuous views of the site are provided thanks to an abundance of interior windows and the creation of intermediary spaces overlooking double-height volumes. Transparency is a prevailing theme in this project, where the transparency of space intentionally reflects the openness and transparency of municipal government. The elegant civic lobby runs virtually the entire length of the building facing East Main Street, as does the covered porch outside, and the front wall of glazing separating the two lets the community see the inner workings of their government while conversely providing views of the plaza and the street by those inside the building. A civic stair winds around the elevator shaft, and movement up and down the stair offers surprise views of the library’s entry foyer one floor below, possible through the clever employment of interior corner glazing. The most sublime moments in the building are like this, where a heightened experiential awareness of the overlapping and layering of space and function occurs.

The ceremonial formality of the council chamber on the top floor is alleviated by ample fenestration equipped with blinds for privacy when required, while the bridging corridor outside the council chamber is completely glazed with views down the entire length of the upper plaza, the courthouse, and East Main Street. The offices and workspaces comprising the top floor of the structure are generous and inviting, and some of the street-level offices are fortunate to have interior windows looking north down into the vast library floor below. And within this interior view of the library, another view is provided through the library’s own north wall beyond to the gorgeously landscaped cana
l lands.

The less rigid spatial divisions in the library result in a vast open double-height room comprising the majority of the space, which contains book stacks for adults, children and young adults, along with a fireplace lounge. Angled fins define the north wall, letting in refreshingly large amounts of natural daylight while providing framed views of the canal and the canal lands, and of activities on the plaza. This serrated wall also serves to create natural nooks or lounges for reading or studying.

Offices and administrative spaces anchor the southeast corner and southern perimeter of the library, while reference and archival functions are housed at the extreme southwest corner, the latter beneath the council chamber. This archival space, called the City Room, has very high clerestory windows which permit passersby on East Main Street to peer inside, providing yet another degree of connectivity between building and site.

From accounts by Mayor Damian Goulbourne and City of Welland Facilities Manager Peter Inman, this project illustrates how architecture really does have the power to sustain and nourish. Despite the initial ambivalence towards the construction of this new facility and the merging of library and municipal governmental functions, it is clear that the building elicits pride in the community and promotes an important sense of civic identity. In the 19 months since its opening, Welland Civic Square’s central location, scenic outdoor plazas, and adjacency to the canal have made it a natural venue for the Rose Festival, the Jazz Festival, recent Christmas celebrations and other events. Welland citizens are engaged with the building, the street, the canal and the canal lands, and the strategy for urban revitalization has been successful in this catalyzing endeavour; there are new signs of life on East Main Street with the opening of new restaurants and increased activity in the area. And through the layered linkages and the skillful restitching of the city and street to the waterfront, the design team has reintroduced the critical concept of public space to Welland residents, an accomplishment certain to foster the sustainability of the community for generations.