If a giant visits the Capilano branch of the Edmonton Public Library, she’ll find a ready spot to rest a book. The building’s long roof folds up and down and up again, creating a set of peaks that would nicely cradle a big hardcover.
And this building by Patkau Architects is just as welcoming to ordinary humans. Its all-black, sculptural form shapes a long interior that’s bright and comfortable. The branch, which opened this past winter, is a bold piece of public architecture, a strong symbol for the importance of public libraries and thoughtful design.
Not bad for an ordinary branch library in a postwar suburban neighbourhood. Patkau, the distinguished Vancouver firm, viewed the site – a long-vacant lot – as “a bit of a puzzle,” partner Greg Boothroyd says.
They considered three different spots for the building: One by the adjacent arterial road to the north; one as a bridge reaching east over the adjacent ravine and one on the flat land next to the adjacent ravine.
In the end, the building sits on the tablelands. Its sculptural form, and its cladding of black aluminum panels and metal mesh, gives it a striking presence on the street, strong enough to grab the eye of an adult or child. But there is complexity.
“At first glance, the peaked roofs have a whimsical quality,” Boothroyd says, “but they are arranged for the comfort of the occupants.”
This is true. Along the ravine-side windows to the east, the ceiling is relatively low. A bench here stretches the entire length of the building, fitted out with radiators and with plugs for your laptop. On the west edge of the building, the architects have stacked up small spaces including washrooms. And in between, the ceiling rises to an airy gable; it’s clad in strips of high-grade knot-free Douglas fir, punctuated with strips of glass that let the sun slide in. It’s instantly legible, easy to navigate, yet rich in material quality and spatial complexity.
It took a visionary client to make this. The branch is one of 10 that Edmonton Public Library has completed in the past eight years, after what Pilar Martinez, the library’s chief executive, calls “a drought that lasted for decades.”
In these new facilities, the institution has been aiming high: “We believe people deserve beautiful buildings,” she says – “places where they can connect with other community members,” and that “inspire a quest for lifelong learning.”
The Capilano branch has a full range of spaces, including a children’s area that’s half-contained but lit by big windows, and a community room that patrons can book for events and meetings. These are uniformly well-detailed and proportioned.
They’re also very nicely fitted out. EPL carried its commitment to quality into the purchase of high-quality furniture, such as Danish-designed BCI library shelving, George Nelson-designed Coconut chairs, and chairs and tables by high-end Canadian manufacturer Teknion.
The library has benefited from the work of Carol Belanger, Edmonton’s City Architect. Belanger oversees the hiring of design professionals for all city projects, and ensures quality control through the design and construction process. The Capilano branch joins a string of high-quality public buildings the city has constructed over the past five or so years, hiring first-rank architects and generally steering them to do fine work.
Patkau Architects, founded by John and Patricia Patkau, certainly counts among that group. The Vancouver firm has an international reputation and has won a large handful of Governor-General’s Medals. And John Patkau, who once lived and worked in Edmonton, says they are pleased and proud to take on this commission.
“The library is singularly the most important public building you can design as an architect,” he argues. “It’s very democratic, in that it is open to everybody and it addresses everybody.”
The Capilano library picks up on a vocabulary of forms the Patkaus have been exploring for about a decade: long and skinny. Ten years ago, there was the 276-foot-long Linear House on Salt Spring Island; the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, B.C., opened in 2016.
“We have a strong affinity for linear spaces,” John acknowledges. “They provide something that is simultaneously grand and intimate.”
There is also a preponderance of folded wood. Here, as at the Audain museum, there are long strips of softwood that follow the folds of the ceilings, wrapping an irregular geometry in a warm, smooth-looking liner. This is a product of the architects’ exploration into the properties of wood and metals, something that has resulted in gallery shows for Patkau and informed the shimmering aluminum facades at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver.
And now, for some Edmontonians, here it is above the thriller section: thoughtful design, shaping space for everyone.