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The University of Toronto decided to unveil the new Robarts Common at the University of Toronto's Robarts Library early with pandemic restrictions easing.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

The University of Toronto’s Robarts Library is considered one of the ugliest buildings in the city.

The hulking pile sometimes known as Fort Book looms over the U of T campus like a sci-fi version of a medieval castle. From one angle it resembles a strutting turkey made from Lego blocks. Its dull concrete walls admit light grudgingly through tall slit windows. Instead of a grand main entrance, it has several, some reached by trudging up wide stone staircases. Inviting it is not.

A new wing aims to change that. The Robarts Common adds five storeys of light-bathed study and meeting space to the old fort.

With pandemic restrictions easing, the library decided to give students a little treat and unveil the addition this week, while the finishing touches were still being applied. The doors opened at 8:30 on Thursday morning. Early birds started trickling in, looking a bit agog as they explored.

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The new addition adds 1,200 new study spots to the library.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

What they found was quite marvellous. Visitors enter by way of a new plaza flanked by cherry trees. Inside are 1,200 new study spots: some at facing desks; others on descending steps; others lined up against a huge glass wall; still others in chairs arranged in conversation circles. The look is all warm oak and grey carpet.

The views are great. Looking out you see a typical Toronto panorama: Victorian houses, a slab-like apartment block, a stone church, the modern university athletic centre. Looking in you see a glowing diorama of students at work. The firm of architects that designed the addition, Diamond Schmitt, says on its website that the aim was to bring “a new spirit of transparency and openness to Canada’s pre-eminent academic research library.”

Soundproofed rooms with big screens on the walls give students a place to discuss their ideas and practise their presentations. Electric sockets for charging devices are everywhere. The WiFi is top notch. There isn’t a book in sight.

Tacking a glass box onto the side of Fort Book was a challenge. The architects had to figure out how to build over a big loading dock. That prevented them from driving supporting columns into the ground. So they built it on a kind of bridge – or, as they describe it, “a steel gambrel truss with diagonal braces.”

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The Robarts Library is a busy place with about 20,000 people passing through its doors on a busy day.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

The project is part of a sweeping multiyear refit of Robarts to prepare it for the future. Libraries are evolving. Instead of cloistered fortresses for safeguarding books, they are becoming teeming hubs for group learning and inventive study. A renovation of the Toronto Reference Library in the 2010s added computer banks, glassed-in study pods and a 3-D printer.

Libraries still have books, of course – in the case of Robarts, four million or so, part of a U of T’s overall collection of around 13 million spread over 42 libraries. Generations of students, professors and journalists who wished they had studied more at school have haunted its endless stacks, floor after floor of aromatic volumes covering every highway and footpath of human knowledge.

Ungainly as it may be, Robarts is heavily used. About 20,000 people pass through its doors on a busy day. Its food court bustles. Its Starbucks draws big lineups. Before the Common was even thought of, the computer stations at the St. George Street entrance were nearly always full. Upstairs among the books, students burrow away at their desks late into the night.

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The Robarts Common adds expansive views to study spaces.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Regulars have developed an abiding affection for the place despite all its flaws. Robarts, they note, includes the magnificent Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, with its Shakespeare folios and other priceless artifacts of early print.

Opened in 1973, Robarts was enormously ambitious in its scale, a bet on the future of the university and the city. It was built to last, with good bones and sturdy materials.

Some people even like the way it looks. Architecture buffs prize it as an outstanding example of Brutalism, the mid-20th-century school that scorned ornamentation and showcased massive forms in concrete and steel. Gary McCluskie of Diamond Schmitt says it has a certain “rugged power.” That is hard to deny. Now it also has an airy annex to lighten its mass. Long live Robarts. Long live libraries.

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