Clearly, there’s no need to shush. As I walk through the front doors of the main public library in Kitchener, Ont., I see movement and life all around: the traffic on the sidewalk through a wall of glass; the art installation dancing above my head, a jumble of printed leaves in cotton-candy pink; and people hanging out in the front room, like the couple snuggled into armchairs and reading to their young son. This feels like a place of activity and community. With books.
Which is exactly the idea. When the city’s library system commissioned LGA Architectural Partners to do a $46-million renovation of the building, the intention was to renew the building physically and also to reflect a new vision for the institution. “The library has taken on a renewed role as a community centre,” says Sonia Lewis, the outgoing CEO of the Kitchener Public Library. “We see that at the Central Library: people coming in who haven’t been to a library in a long time and they’re making a space their own.”
Public library systems across the country – from Halifax, which opened its new Central Library last fall, to planned new facilities in Calgary and Ottawa – are engaged in similar efforts today. Many of their existing buildings date back to the public-building boom of the 1960s and 1970s; they need work. At the same time, demand for library facilities is growing, and institutions are adopting a more active service model that includes access to technology, all kinds of cultural programming and librarians serving as active guides to research .
The renovated Kitchener building, by LGA with heritage architect Phillip Carter, is a product of this moment. LGA’s team, led by the Kitchener native David Warne, took the well-loved 1962 library by Carl Reider and made it both larger and dramatically more open. “To us, the project was like putting a ship in a bottle,” LGA’s Janna Levitt tells me as we stand in the atrium. “It became a study, architecturally, in how to incorporate new elements as a wrapper of the original.” On the street side, the architects added a new layer of glass that turns the existing façade – of sculpted, curving concrete and fieldstone – into an artifact on display.
That dialogue between past and present continues inside. The main reading room, which faces the street, is a wide two-storey-high space overseen by “Enlightenment,”a 36-foot mural by local painter Jack Bechdel. The architects preserved the work and matched it with a new ceiling, with lights scattered like stars in the night sky, and dips and folds that dampen the sound. The acoustic dampening is important: a café is being built in one corner; an array of loungers, worktables and Eames side chairs are scattered around for patrons to use, and the room is used for public programming.
Librarians sit at two desks here, on the edge of the space but ready to help. Lewis explains that they play an active role helping people with research of all kinds, including how to navigate Canadian society: many new Canadians in the region come here for help finding their way to public resources. “For them, this institution is a safe haven,” Lewis says.
The reading room also gets loud with cultural programming. “People didn’t necessarily come here to listen to the guitar player,” Lewis says. “but I think that element is another reason people are coming to the building: to see what’s new.”
LGA’s thoughtful design, which just won a Library Building Award from the Ontario Library Association, perfectly reflects this mixture of mid-century idealism and contemporary coziness. Their aesthetic favours accretion and variety, and the library mixes materials and textures freely: floors in dappled Algonquin limestone; exposed concrete ceilings with the texture of a waffle; ceiling panels in a light birch; and new shelves and cabinetry made of a warm-hued walnut.
The cabinetry holds books, and further along into the building it also holds kids. A series of little cubbies, each with an acid-green cushion, provide space for children to nest with a book. A back corner of the building is a new children’s room, for storytelling and educational programs – behind a glass wall which is decorated with a translucent mural of flowers and trees by the artist Melissa Levin.
The respect given to small children is no accident. Lewis says the KPL is seeing more users of all ages – including parents who grew up there, returning with their kids. “The library is now the one place everybody goes,” Levitt says. Children and the elderly are both growing populations among library users. “As books become less of a source of information, other information is delivered as program. You need more space to deliver it.”
All this serves a city-building agenda, as well. Kitchener’s downtown is cut by one-way streets and heavy car traffic. Parking is non-negotiable. Accordingly the library was combined with a “supersized” new civic garage designed by WalterFedy, which runs beside and under the building. Trading parking lots for walkable public space, Levitt says, encourages people to come here on foot.
This block was designated in the 1960s as a civic district; the new library looks sensitively onto a historic stone wall of the courthouse to the east, and across a park to the west in a gesture to the regional art gallery and theatre.
The library’s west face is all glass. Some panes are printed with vertical lines of a ceramic frit; some are transparent; some are embedded with an insulating gel. This pattern is shaped by an analysis of sunlight on the façade and the needs for privacy and insulation. As a design idea, this “is not just fun with form,” Levitt says. “It goes away from the monumental to something much more specific.”
It also evokes books on a shelf, that ancient pattern elaborated and abstracted. As such, it’s a fine metaphor for what the library does today. There are still books here – hundreds of thousands of them – but as Lewis says, other types of resources are in demand. Technology, design and maker culture intersect here: one of the most prominent and busiest rooms in the library is a “digital lab” that includes a 3-D printer, an electronic die cutter and music stations.
There’s a similar offering at the new Halifax Central Library, and also at the two newest branches of Toronto’s public library – the Scarborough Civic Centre branch designed by LGA, which opened just a month ago, and the very fine Fort York Branch by KPMB Architects.
And yet what makes this space hum isn’t one particular type of programming. It’s the atmosphere that this is, as Levitt says, an open “third place” between work and home – not a Starbucks, but a true agora with Wi-Fi, somewhere to meet your fellow citizens. “In spite of their heavy use of technology,” Lewis says, “people still need to be around other people.”