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The friendly yet familiar design of Toronto’s new Albion library

The interior of the new Albion library, located at 1515 Albion Rd. in Toronto.

The Toronto Public Library’s new Albion branch directly responds to the surrounding community’s unique needs. Unfortunately, it also bears a striking resemblance to another library in New York, Alex Bozikovic writes.

“I see kids come into the library, and their eyes light up,” says Haney Mussa. “They’re thinking: ‘When can we come back without our parents?’”

Mussa is the library services manager for the Albion District of the Toronto Public Library, and in her diverse suburban territory, the library is one of the few places where young people can come together to engage with the wider world.

Now they have a new venue: the Albion branch library, which opened its new building on Monday. While the library’s previous 1973 building has been closed for the past few weeks, Mussa has seen patrons find their way into the new facility. “The description we get from people who stumble over is: ‘Oh, my God, I feel like I’m downtown,’” she says.

The symbolism is clear. “There haven’t been any major infrastructure investments in this neighbourhood in a while,” Mussa explains. “But this is state-of-the-art.”

Haney Mussa, library services manager for the Albion District of the Toronto Public Library.

Indeed, in an area that’s far from wealthy, the 29,000-square-foot building feels relatively luxe. Designed by the Toronto office of architects Perkins + Will with a $12-million budget, it uses solid fir beams to support the ceiling, while cedar panelling and ash cabinetry frame triangular windows. Three courtyards pierce the building, bringing light and plantings inside the walls. And the outer façades are lined by vertical tubes of terracotta in loud hues of yellow, purple and grey. (The form of the building is unfortunately familiar; more on that in a minute.)

These colour bars provide a sort of barrier – and deliberately so. “From our public consultations, what we got was the idea of the library as a refuge from the world outside,” says Andrew Frontini, the lead designer.

That means the roaring traffic on five-lane Albion Road out front, and also the difficulties of life for what is a patron base predominantly of immigrants, Mussa says.

This is one of the busiest libraries in the system – with more than 350,000 visits a year, says Susan Martin, the library system’s manager of branch capital planning and implementation.The architecture had to tackle a difficult and increasingly important problem: How do you create a public gathering place within a car-oriented suburb? On a block not really hospitable to walking, how do you make a place for people to gather?

The new Albion library is built on what used to be the parking lot for the old library.

This part of Rexdale, in Toronto’s northwest corner, is increasingly typical of North American suburbs. Built up in the mid-20th century for the car-owning middle class, it is now home to many new Canadians who live in social housing or the relatively affordable high-rise apartment buildings that dot the area. Many need instruction in English as a second language and guidance to reach settlement services. “And few people have cars,” Mussa says.

The design reflects these facts. Rather than close the existing facility for renovations, TPL built the new one in its underused parking lot. The old building will be wrecked, creating space for a new lot that has been designed by landscape architects at DTAH to double as a space for market and public events.

The Albion branch is one of the busiest libraries in the system, with more than 350,000 visits a year.

In considering the design of the new building, library staff did extensive outreach at the nearby community centre, mosque, gurdwara and, of course, the mall, in languages including Somali, Punjabi, Hindi and Gujarati. They brought along an Arabic-speaking colleague to reach the sizable group of Syrian refugees who now live in the area; and spoke with members of the area’s established Caribbean and Italian communities.

What they found was a desire for natural light, comfortable seating, and places to welcome community events, says Gail Rankin, the library’s senior manager of facilities development.

During consultation for the new library, staff found a desire for natural light, comfortable seating, and places to welcome community events.

Those words describe many new libraries across North America, including Toronto. The Toronto system has shown a commitment to thoughtful design and for building for the long term; its most recent new branches, particularly the 2015 Scarborough Civic Centre Branch by LGA and Phillip H. Carter, have been wonderful.

And yet there are some caveats here.

The Perkins + Will design is slightly undercooked. Those crafted wood ceilings, which in drawings look pristine, are marked by electrical conduits and pipes. The terracotta, a favourite material of the architects, is awfully loud in its colours: distinctive or gaudy, love-it-or-hate-it.

A rendering of the Albion library, designed by the Toronto office of architects Perkins + Will.

Most importantly, the architecture seems to borrow from another public library: the Kew Gardens Hills branch of the Queens Library in New York, by the architects Work AC. Drawings of the Toronto library show it from an angle, emphasizing the zigzagging pattern of its façade; there is a drawing of the Kew Gardens library that is spookily similar.

A rendering of Kew Gardens Hills branch library in Queens, N.Y., by the architects Work AC.

Given that the Queens Library branch was designed in 2011, this is a somewhat embarrassing coincidence. When I showed the drawing to Dan Wood, a partner in Work AC, it prompted a long discussion in their office. In an e-mail, Wood said: “These things happen. As architects, we are always looking at precedents … to inform our work, and this sharing and exchange has only intensified in our age of information.”

Frontini says: “To my knowledge, no one in our studio saw that image. We certainly didn’t present [the Queens Library] as a precedent … I controlled the design pretty tightly, and the form emerged integrally from the design.”

I take Frontini at his word. Yet the degree of similarity is unusual; and the Queens building would have been seen by some Toronto urbanists when I wrote a quick blog post about it for Spacing Toronto in 2011. Ironically, my focus was New York’s Design and Construction Excellence Initiative, which tries to boost city construction with innovation from emerging architects. The idea is to allow more design-focused architects to beat out their larger competitors – such as Perkins + Will – in an industry where corporate consolidation is squeezing out creativity.

The idea (and there’s lots of qualitative evidence for this) is that more ambitious architects – so-called “design-oriented firms” – will try harder, sweat the details longer, bring fresher ideas, all for the same fee. And this work will help them build a business. This has surely been the case for Work AC. The firm has grown to a staff of about 20, and Wood’s partner, the McGill-educated Amale Andraos, was named the dean of architecture at Columbia University in 2014.

The building has three courtyards, and its outer façades are lined by vertical tubes of terracotta in loud hues of yellow, purple and grey.

In Canada, Edmonton has adopted a similar initiative to spectacular results. The city hired architects for civic buildings on the basis of their design expertise, while keeping fees and construction budgets steady. “I know more-creative architects know how to spend the money,” City Architect Carol Bélanger told me.

Toronto’s planning department had a public discussion of the idea last November, with no results yet. I was hoping Toronto would borrow that idea. Instead, at least from some angles, the city seems to have borrowed a design. The two buildings are not identical, but the resemblance is strong.

“It is possible that we absorbed it unconsciously,” Frontini says of that Work AC drawing. “Sometimes there is a kind of environmental influence.”

But Work AC, Wood suggests, would never allow such “influence” to creep into their own designs. “We are very cognizant of … our responsibility to creativity in the service of our clients, and the broader audience of every project,” he says.

Canadian clients should look for that same passion and integrity in the designers they hire. It would be nice to see – even in Rexdale – buildings that serve their community, are made for the long term, and have nothing to apologize for.

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