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The third level of the new Calgary Central Library.

Neil Zeller/Handout

Can one building contain everything that makes for city life? Calgary’s new Central Library sure tries. There’s an LRT running through the guts of the structure, great espresso upstairs, fine furniture and hardwood at every turn.

All that, and design that fuels the imagination. The library, designed by the Norwegian-American architects Snohetta along with the Calgary office of Dialog, is a building for the ages: a bold expression of how thoughtful architecture can make a good place and contribute to building a community.

The library, which opened to the public on Nov. 1, fills an awkward site behind the city’s municipal building. Its form is both memorable and hard to describe: From some angles, it resembles a ship, perched on a two-storey outcropping of concrete, but its hull is clad with hexagons of glass and aluminum, and a cave-like public space cuts through its centre.

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It’s weird. But also friendly, as its lead design architect, Craig Dykers of Snohetta, explained. “A building like this has to be radical in some ways,” Dykers says, “but if that’s all that it’s about, then it’s not going to be successful. So, we have a lot of warm materials, a lot of intimate spaces, a lot of endearing, familiar things that bring the radical into focus.”

The architects, who won a design competition in 2013, have got the balance right. The building is defined by a large central atrium that cuts all the way from the lobby to the roof, roughly oval and lined by curved stairs. This “crazy spiralling thing,” as Dykers calls it, is lined by panels and slats of white oak that give it a warm, almost domestic feeling.

Visitors walk in by ascending a long, curving ramp, or a grand staircase, which each take them up above the light-rail transit line that cuts across the ground level. From here, they reach that outdoor cave; its complex curving roof is lined by slats of cedar, seamlessly finger-joined by British Columbia’s StructureCraft.

Then it’s into the atrium, and a sequence of spaces that spiral upward around the edges of the building. There is a 12,000-square-foot children’s library and a café, followed by a mixture of book stacks and reading areas. You can ascend around the edges of the building, along shallow and fully accessible ramps, by stairs that line the atrium or, if you must, by elevator.

On the way up, you see the outer skin of the building, with its syncopated pattern of hexagons and trapezoids, come up against the concrete structure of the building. It is varied and beautiful. The quality of the construction, by Stuart Olson Inc., shines at every turn.

The quality of the construction shines.

Michael Grimm

On the top floor, the procession ends at a 108-foot-long oval reading room. This is a familiar type of space. In the great urban libraries of North America, designed on classical principles, the reading room is a grand and formal room that takes a place of honour; here, the TD Great Reading Room is more modest and placed off-centre, to make room for that giant atrium. And yet, this place for reading and reflection feels dignified and solid: It’s furnished with long tables custom-made of white oak – a Scandinavian variation on your grandparents’ library.

Dykers, the architect, is proud of this room, but his favourite spaces in the building lay just outside it: a pair of vestibules, formed where the oval of the reading room bumps up against the oval of the atrium. It’s basically leftover space, but finished with slats of oak that run floor-to-ceiling – and you can peek through screens and doorways and see all the way through the building. There is a luxury in the materials, and in the three-dimensional play of light and form, and in the fact that you can find such a nice corner that has nothing much to do.

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Dykers revels in all of this. “I think a library needs to have a range of spaces,” he says, “from small, weird niches to grand ceremonial spaces and everything in between.” In most public building projects, small, weird niches get red-penned out of the plans, around the same time that the oak panelling gets replaced by something cheap.

That didn’t happen here. Calgary committed deeply to this $245-million project, and it’s a tool to remake the city. “This building has to bring people downtown,” says Bill Ptacek, chief executive of the Calgary Public Library (CPL). “There will be 11,000 people living in the East Village, and it will be their community library, but beyond that, it will be the library that everybody wants to come to.”

The East Village, just outside the library, is a 49-acre downtown cluster that’s now being redeveloped. The agency in charge, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), which put $75-million into the new library’s budget, is taking a forward-looking approach, pushing for walkable streets, a mix of residences and workplaces, and cultural attractions. The National Music Centre is a block away.

The CPL also sees itself, like most large library systems these days, as an agency whose mission includes a broad definition of community service. It has partnerships with a variety of groups, which allow it to offer a wide range of programs. So, if you show up for classes in English as a second language or founding a small business, you can bring your kids; early-childhood-education students from Bow Valley College, working through a partnership with the local YWCA, will look after them. “The library has changed, and this building reflects that,” Ptacek says.

In this young city – which according to CPL officials has 90,000 children under 5 – the institution has been working deliberately through parents and educators to reach the next generation.

Accordingly, the children’s facilities at the new Central Library have pride of place. “It’s a great space for early childhood,” says Sarah Meilleur, director of service delivery for the Central Library, “but also for toddlers and school-age children as well.” No kidding: Aside from generous reading spaces, there is a kids’ theatre and a two-level enclosed playground that might even draw some middle-schoolers.

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Other public facilities include a 340-seat theatre, and conference rooms that can be booked by members of the public. High-quality interior finishes and furniture (much of it by Vitra) add a consistent sense of quality.

Back outside, the building remains stuck in a streetscape that is, for now, not so easy to walk through. The library and CMLC deserve credit for commissioning new plazas around the building (by landscape architects PFS) and by keeping the library out of the Plus-15 network, the elevated pedestrian walkways that suck up so much of the street life in the area.

Certainly the building articulates a new vision for Calgary. Architect Rob Adamson, a Calgarian who led this complex project for Dialog, calls it a new icon for a city that has few. It follows the Palliser Hotel, the Calgary Tower and the Saddledome arena, “which became a building that represented the place and that people connected to. I don’t think there’s been much since that does that,” he says.

You could say something equally pessimistic about Canada’s public architecture in general. The past generation has not seen this country – outside of Quebec – build many fine places to come together. But the new Central Library aspires to become a great public building for the 21st century, and it succeeds.

This is architecture aiming for the highest of social goals. “We get smarter by coming together, sharing ideas and pushing knowledge forward,” Dykers says. Well, Calgary now has a truly fine place to think ahead.

The new Central Library aspires to become a great public building for the 21st century.

Neil Zeller

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