Big, blocky, bright tangerine chairs beckon. Natural light streams in. And in every corner of this public library in a suburb of Toronto, there is quiet bustle: a young mother reading aloud to her child; a man poring over a newspaper in front of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Credit River; a gaggle of citizens scanning the Internet on a bank of computers.
The Port Credit Library is part of the Mississauga Public Library project that last month received a Governor-General’s Medal for architecture, honoured for its “astute and economical remodelling,” according to jury members. Its partners in the accolades included little Lakeview Library in a quiet enclave of the city, and the Lorne Park Library, the largest of the three, in a tony area of south Mississauga.
They were grouped together and redesigned under the hand of one building designer, Rounthwaite, Dick and Hadley Architects, Inc. (RDH) of Toronto. The three libraries appear to be part of a growing trend: retrofitting instead of rebuilding. This group of 1960s buildings may light the way for other communities seeking cost-effective ways of updating buildings of a similar period, some of them beloved, despite their tattered corners.
Lead architect Tyler Sharp says of the last six libraries he’s designed, five of them have involved renovations or renovation additions.
“One of the most sustainable things that you can do with a building is to adaptively reuse it, as opposed to demolishing and sending everything to landfill,” he says. “I think there is a tendency from an environmental point of view to see that it’s best to reuse what’s there and transform it.”
All three Mississauga library branches were “emblematic of the growing social and cultural importance of adaptive re-use,” the Governor-General’s jury noted.
Mr. Sharp adds, “All of the projects that won were very deserving, but it is very interesting when the project has quite a modest budget.”
The three libraries were made over for about $8-million, with the Lorne Park Library’s 12,000-square-foot structure getting a $3-million overhaul and the other two, at about 7,600-square-feet each, costing about $2.5-million apiece. The libraries benefited from the infrastructure stimulus fund, established by the federal government to generate activity during the recent economic slowdown.
All three branch libraries had been showing their age. Constructed during the 1960s, they were a bit down at the heel, had mechanical and plumbing issues – and they weren’t energy efficient. Lakeview even had a touch of “stable” asbestos. They all had to get in line with city accessibility guidelines to accommodate wheelchair patrons.
“The branches were of an age,” says Betty Mansfield, the acting director of library services in Mississauga. Although they were dated buildings and needed significant renovation, they had “strong bones,” she says. Their problems were not simple to address.
Ms. Mansfield says there was a cost saving to the retrofitting, although Mr. Sharp says it’s hard to judge. “Every time you open something up [in an old building], there’s a new series of issues that you have to deal with.”
But dealing with one architect for all three buildings brought an economy and cohesiveness of design. Given that the mid-century modern libraries shared similar designs and even floor plans, Mr. Sharp says the three were given the same design vocabulary with variations on the theme.
Now, all have exterior canopies that reach out to their communities with welcoming arms; all three are blessed by natural light with the addition of large windows, and particularly with the Lorne Park branch, the addition of interior glazed walls opened the building to interior vistas as well as the park out back. Stacks are kept low for better visibility. All three have quiet study rooms.
But all have a slightly different schedule of finishes, so each has a distinct personality. With Lakeview, the outside brick is washed in white, but the interior features Douglas fir.
The exterior brick at Port Credit is stained charcoal, but the rest of the exterior is white, including the canopy and concrete frame. Inside, the wood is stained white oak; it’s the library with the lightest colour scheme. It’s the most active library of the three, with 60,000 visitors a year.
Lorne Park Library, embedded in a leafy, well established and upscale residential neighbourhood, called for dark, rich materials. The canopy frame there is painted in a dark anodized colour. The curtain wall inside is dark grey. The wood is dark walnut. The blocky chairs are deep cobalt blue.
The idea was to accent the existing modernist style with vertical fields of brick and glass. The architect also integrated a series of solar shading devices (louvres) in the canopies that helped shade the expanses of glass.
Port Credit demanded a major change; architects took out one solid concrete wall of the building that faced the Credit River and created a wall of glass for a reading atrium.
Ms. Mansfield said the original plans for the Port Credit building, erected in 1962, included windows facing the river, but cost-cutting measures may have scuttled that plan. At one point, the city toyed with the idea of relocating the library, but local patrons made it clear: they wanted it to remain in its prime location, across the street from the Port Credit harbour and beside a wide expanse of river. It’s a gem of a location.
The view, glass and vistas, inside and out, have served a purpose: to bring people back to their libraries. Previous libraries that Mr. Sharp had done had lost their ability to function and draw in people.
“The biggest thing that we hope draws people in is the concept of visibility inside,” he says. “This concept of visibility also translates to the exterior. When you introduce these very large fields of glass all around the building, you are actually projecting the life and vitality of the library outward, to the street.”
The Governor-General’s jury members were impressed. “The dialogue between existing and contemporary parts is clearly articulated and poetically expressed,” they said, “revitalizing each library both as an individual building and wider neighbourhood focus.”
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