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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

HRM by Re-Design: Meta Library, Part Two: Social Superstructure

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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 Halifax Central Library. All drawings and images courtesy Thomas Evans.

Text by Dustin Valen

HALIFAX – Housing a variety of media types and ample public space, Evans’ library reconsiders reading as its sole purpose in favour of creating a platform for social diversity and information exchange. The uniform exterior of the Meta Library is thus a misleading representation of its interior. Evans describes the building as a “framework for linking public gathering, events, and activities”; one that promotes “social interaction through both traditional library elements and contemporary media related functions.”

The resulting ‘social-superstructure’ contains a dizzying variety of spaces that cater simultaneously to a vast number of users as well as the peculiarities that set them apart. In addition to traditional library functions like the collective reading hall and exhibition space, new and intriguing functions include a performance platform, cinemascape, studio workshop, park studios, children’s apparatus, and teenage clusters.

Evans proposes a series of devices designed to connect people to information, as well as each other, in pursuit of chance encounters between patrons, new media types and current events. Devices to browse the library’s collection, as well as its uncommon amenities, serve as an interface between patrons and the building as well as to other users.

At locating hubs, library staff are on hand for discussion about the library’s collections or events — a probable source of discomfort to aloof librarians the world over.  With checkout and returns automated however, the role of library staff in the Meta Library is transformed from information curators to interactive facilitators who enliven the building as a platform for social exchange. Alternatively, computer search portals offer familiar methods to navigate the media collection, although Evans insists that these too should offer unsolicited advice to patrons. A desire for unlikely associations is evident in his design for a random materials bookshelf, a moving conveyor that displays freshly returned items for patrons to pick from haphazardly.

Programmatic zones surround a nucleus of activity where patrons are steered in different directions by a variety of search tools.
An automated check-out and circulation process frees up library staff to engage directly with patrons. The random materials bookshelf displays the retuning stock before it is re-shelved.

Housed in the hovering bridge section, the largest and most prominent space remains the collective reading hall and archive for printed media. Together with digital nodes (computer workstations), these two facets deeply embed the functions of a traditional library in the new ‘superstructure’, despite an effort to label them enigmatically. Other functional spaces — freely arranged throughout the building in discontinuous vertical and horizontal layers — constitute a fluid planning strategy that anticipates the library’s need to change as new media types are popularized. Carefully sited, the building encloses a series of plazas between, and sometimes beneath, buildings on the site.  These park studios act as extensions to the libraries interior, encouraging activity to spill outdoors and connecting the library to the surrounding city.  Importantly, the outdoor spaces reflect a quality of the Spring Garden Memorial Library that Evans identifies as “well used” and “cherished” — no doubt influencing his decision to include teenage clusters in the new building programme.

Left: A plaza, or park studio, formed beneath and between the numerous buildings on the library site. Right: the studio workshop is a hands on learning environment for teaching and learning.
Left: Exhibition space links the ground floor of the library to the collections above, doubling as a circulation spine and a visual media container. Right: Children’s apparatus consist of playful spaces that open and close to become more intimate.

In deference to the usual silence of a library, the studio workshop is conceived as a hands-on environment where learning is embodied in physical material and group activity.  These multi-purpose workshops serve as a venue for a variety of uses including continuing education and community meetings – a feature important to Evans who points out that public consultations for the new Halifax Central Library are unable to take place in the old library building. Spaces for large groups are paired with equally intimate nooks for individuals, including reading docks for “thoughtful configuration” and study pods for “acoustically mediated” group discussions.

The importance of audio and news media is addressed in a series of docking and broadcasting stations that feature live streaming radio and televised news. By extension, the library’s collection is expanded to include live theatre, music, and debate. In addition to recognizing performance as an important media type, the cinemascape and performance platform contribute to the liveliness of the library and outdoor spaces.

Ambitiously, Evans imagines the living room new hour transformed into a theatre sized screen crowded with news and current event channels for public viewing.  Despite its nightmarish resemblance to a Kubrick scene, the news channel room is a manifestation of Evans’ belief that a library should help to “develop a more globally aware and informed public perspective.”

The development of a new building type is as much founded on historical models as it is hypothetical futures. Recognizing the importance of formal continuity in building and city form, Evans proposes a separate material archive called the city timeline project to organize Halifax’s documented history into a coherent visual timeline, shedding light on the perpetually changing urban environment and encouraging meditations on its possible future. A bold example of ambitious and skilled urban design, the diverse programme of the library and its monumental form simultaneously anchor the building to its site and engage with the surrounding city. The measured abstractness of the design sheds light on a number of possibilities for a building type that is at once flexible and imaginative, making it an exemplary model from which to draw inspiration.

The news channel room is a public incarnation of the evening news and living room sofa.
Model view of the proposed library interior and site, as seen from Sackville Street.

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