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Plans are under way to open Library Square’s roof garden to the public, as originally planned. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)
Plans are under way to open Library Square’s roof garden to the public, as originally planned. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

Safdie hoping to see his library vision fulfilled Add to ...

Nearly 20 years after Library Square first opened, architect Moshe Safdie is excited at the possibility that his full vision for the place is going to be realized. Plans are under way to create a public roof garden, a key element of Mr. Safdie’s original design. In Vancouver last week, Mr. Safdie toured the 1995 complex “top to bottom” and is eager to see his original plan come to life.

The design, as initially proposed by Mr. Safdie, included a reading garden on the roof overlooking the city – and open to the public. The roof is green, but nobody’s reading up there; there is no public access. The final construction budget (the library side of the complex came in at $106.8-million and the federal office tower at $50-million) did not include the public rooftop garden.

The provincial government has been occupying the eighth and ninth floors, but the lease is due to expire, and the Vancouver Public Library is preparing to reclaim that space.

“Now there is a kind of a swell to restore this idea and we are working with the library on a scheme that will make the roof again public,” Mr. Safdie told The Globe and Mail in an interview. “When the library opened, it was a major civic event for the city. It was so exciting to see how people took possession and pride. And I think it will rekindle that because it will add a whole new dimension to the experience of the building.”

Mr. Safdie has teamed up again with famed Vancouver-based landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander, who designed the green roof, and local architecture firm DA Architects, which worked with Mr. Safdie’s firm on development and construction of Library Square. Over the past year-and-a-half, they have worked on potential plans for the redesign of the eighth floor and the roof with funding from the city’s 2012-2014 capital plan.

“Every day, we are asked by the public if we can access the green roof,” said VPL chief librarian Sandra Singh. “It has been a significant desire of visitors.”

It’s by no means a done deal. The VPL is preparing to submit a proposal to the city for consideration in inclusion in the coming capital plan.

“It’s the library board’s highest priority and we hope it’ll be a priority for the city, but of course there are many, many priorities,” said Ms. Singh. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but there’s a lot going on.”

Ms. Singh was unable to provide a budget figure for the project – there are different scenarios under consideration that would carry varying price tags – but it will be a multimillion-dollar venture. “It’s not inconsequential,” she said.

Ms. Orberlander’s green roof is planted with blue and green fescue grass and kinnikinnick in a pattern that replicates the flow of the Fraser River. But the only way to experience it is to view it from above (in particular from the higher floors of the federal building).

The plan for the eighth floor is to expand community-use spaces. There won’t be any book stacks, but community meeting rooms and what Ms. Singh calls a quiet reading sanctuary – absent elsewhere, due to the library’s open design and acoustics.

Mr. Safdie has another concern about the library – upkeep. Late last week, back in his Boston-area office after speaking at the TED conference in Vancouver, he was crafting a letter to Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, urging him to provide the funding to maintain the library properly.

“The success of it brings with it a responsibility, because a building should be well-maintained,” said Mr. Safdie. “And it really needs some love and maintenance because the intensity of use is beyond anything anyone expected. The furniture and the table tops have just worn out from use.”

About 6,000 people visit the library daily, which has seen more than 37 million visitors since it opened in 1995, according to Ms. Singh, who says the wear and tear is understandable, and the library is working on some renewal while juggling other budget priorities.

Across the street from the library is the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts, also designed by Mr. Safdie, and now owned and operated by the Westside Church.

“I was surprised to see that it’s now a church,” said Mr. Safdie. “It’s sad to me – not that it’s a church, that’s fine. But it’s sad to me that the cultural life of Vancouver somehow could not sustain another performing art theatre. It was very exciting when it was a theatre complementing the library and the CBC and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre so that it sort of forms a precinct. And so in that sense I think it’s too bad.”

That cultural-precinct vision would receive new life with the addition of a new Vancouver Art Gallery, proposed for the parking lot across the street from the QET and the CBC. Mr. Safdie was one of 75 architects who submitted a proposal for the new VAG, but he did not make the shortlist of five.

“But I’m happy it’s coming to the neighbourhood and I wish them all the best.”

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