HALIFAX – With the final public consultation session wrapping last Thursday, Halifax’s new Central Library promises to set a new precedent — not just in terms of its modern design, but, perhaps more importantly, in terms of the participatory process that guided that design.
To put it gently, Halifax is not known for its progressive consultation practices. To be a little less sympathetic, public engagement and consultation efforts in this city tend to be haphazard, even verging on tokenistic. Happily, a number of recent efforts hint at a change in philosophy when it comes to public input. Private and semi-private developments like Fenwick Tower and the Seaport Farmers’ Market have made strides in the direction of more meaningful consultation, and public library’s ongoing process has gone even further to overcome barriers to community participation.
“It’s difficult to get a really valid answer back from a broad spectrum of the public” says Morten Schmidt, Design Director for the library’s international partner, schmidt/hammer/lassen architects. “But the way it has been facilitated and hosted and the sort of continuation of these consultations has really shown a different picture than I thought. There have been a lot of valid points that have come out of it; we have sort of proved a certain way of thinking.”
From targeted focus groups, to surveys, to graffiti walls, chalking, and yarn-bombing, the process made use of a range of traditional and creative consultation methods, garnering a similar range of perspectives. Thursday’s final public meeting saw the culmination of these efforts, revealing an adapted design that had incorporated the results of all of these participatory opportunities.
A small facilitation team was led by Tim Merry, a Nova Scotian-based host, slam poet, and social entrepreneur, well-versed in participatory and democratic facilitation methods. Inspired by The World Cafe conversational model, participants were arranged into friendly discussion-sized tables and invited to converse after each element of the design was presented.
During the first of these discussion opportunities, we were asked to reflect on the design of the first floor, and a number of my table-mates began to describe it as ‘the public square Halifax lacks’ — safeguarded from Nova Scotia’s nebulous weather, but open and welcoming to public space-enjoyers and library-goers alike. This was a moment of validation for the design, identifying a void the building caters to, and drawing a parallel to the success of the current Spring Garden Road branch, whose own public space is one of the most dynamic in the city.
This attention to the Halifax landscape has been a major theme emerging from the consultations. “All the designs that we’re doing, they’re never sort of repeated as a template or a model; they are always unique. And they are unique in that sense that they link into the context — the broader context — of the place where they’re built,” says Schmidt, going on to discuss unique opportunity the Queen and Spring Garden site provides — a converging point amid Halifax’s more grid-like physical and social infrastructure.
With features like ‘The City Space’ (a public performance venue) and ‘The City Living Room’ (a reading area that looks out over the landscape), dedication to Halifax’s citizenry as a whole is made explicit.
“I think it needs to be open, first of all. And show that it opens up as a democratic building,” says Schmit, contrasting the design against more harsh, postmodern libraries designed by Robert Stern, which attach a sense of eliteness to the knowledge contained within. “You must really allow everyone to enter it, even people who cannot read. It’s library space but much more a cultural hub. You must be inspired in many many different ways.”
By simply inviting the public to enter into the library’s design, Schmidt, his firm, their local partners at Fowler, Bauld & Mitchell, and the facilitation team have already moved in this direction.