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In the past few years, it’s become clear that libraries remain relevant and important. Public libraries across Canada and beyond have been reinventing themselves as hubs for social services and community exchange – as well as all sorts of learning.

Two events this month suggest this trend will continue, but with some limits. Calgary has just opened a fine and generous public building as its central library. Ottawa, on the other hand, appears to be heading for something much less inspiring with its own main library.

In theory, the two libraries have a lot in common: new main branches, each replacing an aging central library that is not well-loved. But there are stark differences in how the two cities have approached these efforts, and in how willing they are to pay the bill and put in the work for high-quality public places.

Calgary’s library is a fine example of how to do a signature public building: Hold a design competition, commit to the resulting vision, provide adequate funds and follow through. The Alberta city did just that, and the result is spectacular, generously sized, well-programmed and beautifully built. The 240,000-square-foot building, with a budget of $245-million, opened Nov. 1.

Soon afterward, the Ottawa Public Library announced a milestone in its process for a new main library: The architects will be Diamond Schmitt of Toronto and Ottawa’s KWC Architects. These designers will now start work toward what OPL promises will be an “iconic” building. But they’ll have several challenges ahead of them.

For one, there’s the site, in LeBreton Flats. It’s down the hill from the centre of downtown; it will soon have an LRT station and will be adjacent to the large new RendezVous LeBreton development, if and when that project proceeds. In the meantime, for what is likely to be a generation, it will be isolated from the street life of downtown, even while the existing main library at Metcalfe and Laurier, in the downtown core, is sold. This, I think, was a mistake.

More importantly, the library will be folded into a larger building, in a partnership with Library and Archives Canada. The whole thing is projected to cost $192-million, and the building will be sizeable, but an LAC facility will take up about 40 per cent of it; the public library’s own portion will occupy roughly 130,000 square feet.

The public library, then, will be roughly half the size, with approximately half the budget, of its Calgary counterpart. This is the bottom line: Public buildings cost money, and you get what you pay for. Ottawa, under Mayor Jim Watson, has taken a cheapskate attitude toward its public places. In a news release, the mayor said the new library “will become an iconic, world-class cultural and architectural destination that offers a unique experience for residents and visitors to the nation’s capital.”

You can’t have it both ways, as Ottawa has recently seen. The Ottawa Art Gallery opened earlier this year in the city as part of a project built in partnership with a developer. Designed by KPMB and Régis Côté, the gallery is a fine work of architecture. But it is also overshadowed, symbolically and literally, by the hotel and condo to which it is attached.

Here it’s important to think about procurement – the process by which the library’s design and construction is being managed. The good news in Ottawa is that the library moved away from a so-called public-private partnership (PPP). Watson had pushed hard for this sort of deal on the library project, but the city determined that wasn’t the best course. That’s fortunate.

On the other hand, Ottawa didn’t hold a design competition, as Calgary did. They hired Diamond Schmitt and their partners through a typical process, choosing them from a shortlist that also included the Dutch architects Mecanoo; British Columbia’s Bing Thom and Patkau Architects; and Schmidt Hammer Lassen of Denmark, who led the design of Halifax’s much-lauded Central Library. Looking at that list, the choice seems an odd one: Diamond are known for being decidedly unflashy. If Ottawa Public Library wants an “iconic” building, they’ve chosen the least likely candidates.

This is where a competition would have helped: By asking architects to define a bold vision that will engage the public, and a vision that will stand up to the many challenges of design, tendering and construction. Something bold enough to redefine a neighbourhood and reshape how people think of the city. Architects can do that, but it takes vision, on a grand scale. In Ottawa, that seems to be missing.

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