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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

HRM by Re-Design: Meta Library, Part One — Urban Monument

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A series that examines urban and architectural issues in Halifax by way of unbuilt proposals authored by different designers, this week featuring a project by graduate architect Thomas Evans for a new library in downtown Halifax. All drawings and images courtesy Thomas Evans. Text by Dustin Valen.

HALIFAX – Through a series of consultations between designers and community members, a design for the new Halifax Central Library is already well underway. In light of these real developments, recent thesis research by Thomas Evans entitled Meta-Library: A Public Platform for Information Exchange is a fitting example for a building that promises to be a significant landmark in the city. Evans’ research considers the many challenges facing the design of a contemporary library and public space in downtown Halifax. Importantly, his work surrounds the actual library project with hopeful optimism.

Meta Library is a parallel investigation into the inner workings of a library and its relationship to the city. At the city scale, it emphasizes important urban conditions that set a library apart as a building type while revealing at a smaller scale the intricacies of social and information exchange that take place within it. Where these themes overlap, the social and technological become enmeshed with history and urban form.  The difficult task of mediating between these competing priorities is to Evans an unlikely source of design inspiration, a task further complicated by his decision to situate the new library on the site of historical Royal Artillery Park in downtown Halifax.

The function of a library has rapidly expanded in recent decades to include a variety of new uses. In addition to serving as a community classroom and meeting space, the popularity of digital media has seen libraries become pseudo movie and music lenders. Meditating on the apparent shift, Evans describes a culture that “increasingly views all media types as being of equal value.” In a recent review of two new Vancouver libraries for Canadian Architect, Adele Weder further emphasizes the importance of libraries as non-commercial destinations for people who want (without buying a coffee) to share social spaces with fellow urbanites. Evans adds that libraries often serve as a “sanctuary for many individuals of less advantageous socioeconomic backgrounds,” noting that “in a world of increased privatization of public spaces… the library remains as a refuge for those who feel these pressures most acutely.”

The recently completed Tommy Douglas Burnaby Library & North Vancouver City Library, by Diamond+Schmitt Architects (and to an even greater extent the Seattle Public Library by architect Rem Koolhaas) are examples of emerging trends in library design that employ socially ambiguous spaces to accommodate different users and uses. The openness and transparency of these buildings likewise signifies the democratic intent behind their design. The recently awarded Grande Bibliothèque du Québec in Montreal is a compelling example of a building with a strong desire to express social values by way of glazing. For Evans, the lengthy history and rapidly changing role of a library unleashes possibilities for a new building type that is both complex and socially aware.

A diagram of relationships illustrates proposed programmatic spaces for a new library

In addition to housing the collection already contained at the Spring Garden Memorial Library a variety of new spaces are proposed to exhibit emerging media and catalyze the exchange of ideas and information. Asking “how can a library facilitate knowledge transfer and social interaction?” Evans rejects the ‘bookhall’ stereotype in favour of a diverse and flexible building type that works across social boundaries to organize, mix, and disseminate information.

Royal Artillery Park, existing site plan
View southwest from the Citadel, c. 1877

Fitted between the existing buildings on the site, the library occupies a shortened city block opposite Citadel Hill between Brunswick and Queen Street. Its soaring form, comprised of four slender towers and a bridge, is designed to be a prominent civic icon that simultaneously preserves the rich architectural history of the site. Established in 1797, the site of Royal Artillery Park is still maintained as an operational facility despite the fact that its last extant building was erected in 1903. Describing the site as “introverted and almost invisible in the contemporary city landscape,” Evans’ scheme signifies shifting social values and the declining influence that the military has over Halifax’s urban form. By absorbing the existing buildings and site into the scheme — as if they were themselves library holdings — the new library enters into an uncompromising relationship with the site’s lengthy history, one that guarantees its long term use as public space in the heart of downtown.

Indoor spaces spill out into a number of courtyards formed between the new and old buildings, embellishing the site with continuous activity and restoring public access to the formerly gated green space.  These intimate spaces are framed by a monolithic façade that deliberately contrasts with the scale and materiality of the existing architecture, serving doubly to create a prominent civic monument in the city and remain distinct from the historical artefacts that surround it. Despite its apparent simplicity, up close the surface of the new building dissolves into an intricate tactile surface. A mixture of solid and clear panels set in the building’s skin cause a play of light across interior spaces and at night cause the building to glow, revealing its complex interior as a pattern of light across its thin outer layer.

In part two, the quality of interior space and diversity of programme that occur behind the building’s surface will be discussed in greater depth, revealing where the Meta Library takes its name.

Building Section, “lifting” as a strategy causes the library building to frame the existing site and buildings
Natural light is moderated as it enters the building by a pattern of openings on the façade that turns into a constellation of glowing apertures at night
Model view of the south facing building elevation

Thomas Evans is a recent graduate of the Dalhousie School of Architecture, he lives and works in Halifax.