Craig Dykers, a founding partner of Snøhetta, likes to joke that his architecture firm and the Canadian practice DIALOG won the 2013 competition for the new $183 million Central Library in Calgary, Alberta, by “cheating.” Well, not cheating, exactly, but by bending the rules. Rather than take the designated site as a given, they stretched it slightly to include a piece of land that was not part of the original brief, so that it met a major east–west thoroughfare. With this extended parcel, the architects devised a long volume with a projecting prow at its northern end and a series of interior vantage points ideal for observing the activity of the city below. Since the 240,000-square-foot building opened in November, in the long-blighted but now rapidly developing East Village neighborhood adjacent to downtown, patrons can watch trains leave from a nearby light-rail station and disappear under the building. “It’s about creating connections to the street,” explains Dykers.
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In addition to housing a collection of more than 450,000 items and providing facilities for the expanded community programs that libraries often offer in this digital age, incorporating the rail line that bisected the site was a key competition mandate. The Snøhetta-DIALOG scheme used the requirement to full advantage. Taking their cues from the curve of the tracks, they developed an arcing concrete podium enclosing the trains, with a four-story, boat-like concrete-and-steel superstructure above.
Bill Ptacek, the public library system’s CEO, confirms that the team was selected in no small part because of its creative approach to the difficult site. Building there meant first encircling the tracks in a tunnel, without disrupting service. This involved a system of precast concrete members that could be erected in the nightly two-hour window that the train does not operate. But the urban design challenge was arguably more difficult than the technical one. Designers would need to draw people into the library, even though its main entrance would sit 17 feet off the ground, on top of the tunnel.
The architects’ response was to create a giant, asymmetrical vault carved clear through the library’s crystalline curtain wall–clad volume. Overhead, bent cedar planks make the portal seem like the swooping hull of a huge overturned canoe. It was inspired, the designers say, by the Chinook winds, a cloud formation that occurs there under certain weather conditions. They intended the sheltered outdoor space not only as an elevated entry plaza, but also as a spot for book fairs and other events, and as a public passage connecting the downtown with the emerging East Village neighborhood.
It is difficult to imagine many people using that archway as a shortcut, since doing so involves an ascent—albeit a gentle one—via stepped terraces or sloping ramps, and then a descent on the opposite side. Nevertheless, the bold arch is a powerful magnet for the library’s visitors, who are rewarded with even more drama when they step inside: just beyond the lobby, a stunning atrium rises 85 feet to an eye-shaped oculus. Here the use of wood continues from the outside, with white oak on the floor and western hemlock on the vertical surfaces, including the balustrades that spiral up the elliptical space.
The sun-drenched atrium is the primary focal point and orientation feature. On each of the library’s levels, the collections are organized in open stacks to the east, while facilities for recording studios, craft and technology classes, and meetings are located to the west. That side of the building also houses an auditorium and a reading room on the fourth floor. Defined by curved bookcases and vertical wood-slat screens, and filled with long, clean-lined, task-lit oak tables, this space, oval in plan, exudes an aura of serious study.
The reading room’s permeable partitions offer glimpses of the atrium, and views toward the east and west, where there are strategically placed openings in the otherwise mostly solid building skin. The envelope is selectively glazed in other locations too, as programmatic requirements allow or to take advantage of particular vistas. For instance, transparency is concentrated in a portion of the eastern facade, framing views of a distant 19th-century fort, and at the north-facing prow, where the potential for heat gain is low.
This judicious use of glass was made possible by cladding the library in 465 polygonal panels—a mix of insulated metal and triple glazing with frits of varying densities. These come in 13 different shapes and sizes, set within four types of 10-by-20-foot units. The resulting pattern, which resembles confetti, is one that is not “a slave to the structural grid,” says Rob Adamson, a DIALOG principal.
Given the ongoing evolution of the library building type, the architects knew they would need to ensure its future adaptability. Floors are raised for the distribution of air, power, and data, which should allow for the simplified rearrangement of program elements at a later time. In addition, the building’s office portion features extra structural capacity, so that it can one day be used for book storage. But what will actually happen is hard to predict, even for the institution’s leadership. “We have no idea where libraries are headed in the next few decades,” admits Ptacek. For now, the new building is wildly popular, with 200,000 visitors in the first three weeks after opening. Hopefully, the Calgary Central Library’s ingenious urban response and inventive architecture will guarantee its popularity—and its relevance—well into the future.
Architect, Landscape Architect, Signage and Wayfinding designer, Interior designer:
Snøhetta 80 Pine Street 10th Floor, New York, USA, 1-646-383-4762, snohetta.com
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Sam Brissette, Jeff Cheung, Michelle Delk, Craig Dykers, Donesh Ferdowsi, Alan Gordon, Martin Gran, Jun Hwang, Mia Kang, Vanessa Kassabian, Mathieu Lemieux-Blanchard, Ben Matthews, Matt McMahon, Filip Milovanovic, Mario Mohan, Kim Andre Fosslien Ottesen, Sofie Platou, Dennis Rijkhoff, Anne-Rachel Schiffmann, Monica Sanga, Justin Shea, Carrie Tsang
Architect of record:
134 11 Ave SE, Calgary, Canada, 1-403-245-5501, http://www.dialogdesign.ca/
Personnel in architect of record's firm who should receive special credit:
Rob Adamson, Louise Aroche, Don Buschert, Doug Carlyle, Stephanie Fargas, Chris Heinaranta, Janice Liebe, David Maksymec, Tamara Marajh, Tim McGinn, Matt Parkes, Brenda Skappak, Jenneke Van Gastel, Wayne Yarjau, Maria Zhang
Electrical and Lighting: SMP Engineering
IT/AV: McSquared System Design Group Inc
Fire and Life Safety: Jensen-Hughes / Sereca Fire Consulting
Acoustics: FF+A Acoustics
Building Envelope and Waterproofing: Building Envelope Engineering Inc.
Signage and Wayfinding: Entro
Curtain wall and Exterior Envelope Design Assist, Fabrication, and Installation: Ferguson Corporation
Exterior Wood Soffit Fabrication and Installation: StructureCraft
Atrium and Interior Woodwork Fabrication and Installation: Executive Millwork
High-Slag Concrete Mix Design Supply, Precast Fabrication and Installation: LaFarge
Concrete Formwork: Stuart Olson
Steel Trusses and Skylight Structure, Miscellaneous Metals: Norfab
Triple Pane Glazing: Vitro Starphire with Solarban Low-E coatings
Extrusions: Hueck Trigon with PPG Duranar coatings
Composite Metal Panels: Alpolic with Valfron coatings
Exterior Wood Archway: FSC Western Red Cedar with Hoover Exterior Fire-X treatment
Precast Panel Formliner: Reckli
Plantings: Regionally-sourced Ash, Aspen, Elm, shrub, forb, and grass species
Unit Pavers: Unilock
Tree grates and trench drains: Urban Accessories
Soil cell system: Deeproot Silva Cells
Load Bearing Insulation: Beaver Plastics Geofoam
Luminis, Selux, Lumenpulse, Lightform
Dorma, Atlas, Rixson Assa Abloy
Wood Slat ceilings and walls: FSC Western Hemlock with Hoover Pyroguard
Wood floors and stairs: Nydree
Skylight Shade Sails: Sefar
Raised access flooring: Tate
Tile: Daltile, Granitoker
Carpet: Interface, Shaw
Wall coverings: 3M Controltac
Acoustical ceilings: Armstrong, Star Silent
Demountable partitions: Haworth
Operable Partitions: Nanawall, Modernfold
Zaneen, Neidhardt, MP lighting, Iguzzini, Lightnet, Bartco, Contech, Senso
Arper, Artek, Artifort, Benson , BuzziSpace, Coalesse, Davis, Geiger, HAY, Haworth, Herman Miller, High Tower, KI, Knoll, Mobius Objects, Naughtone, Nienkamper, Quinze Milan, Steelcase, Teknion, Vitra, Watson, Watson
Book Conveyance System: Lyngsoe Systems
Faucets, Urinals, Toilets: Toto
Lighting Controls and Daylight Sensors: Encelium Energy Management System