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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

UrbSanity: Shhh!!! A loud vision for the Central Library

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Last summer, following the 40th anniversary of the Ottawa Public Library Main Branch on Metcalfe, the Main Library Facility Planning report was released including three recommendations; renewal, renovation, or redevelopment. Two years earlier, a Nanos Research survey reported that 83% of users of the main branch were satisfied with their user experience, the wide selection of resources, and central location. At that time, the OPL board supported modernization as its prefered option. This month, the OPL board will review yet another report, this time recommending the construction of a new central library.

The report released at the end of May incorporates feedback from “a very comprehensive public engagement process” including the public meeting at city hall on March 31st. 150 people attended the meeting and another 435 tuned into the live online broadcast. A breakout session invited those with a seat at city hall to “dream big” with a “sky’s the limit” vision for a new central library. Due to technical difficulties with the online feedback system, the discussion for those following online was unproductively relegated to Facebook resulting in only a handful of comments.

So, in the words of one of three questions for public input: “How would a Central Library transform our lives and our city?”

The report is a glossy and enthusiastic call for a library that is modern, innovative, connected, landmark, plus a handful more buzzwords. Beyond the traditional library spaces, it should contain a café, restaurants, collaborative workshop spaces, a teen zone, discover spaces, meeting rooms, outdoor and indoor gardens, and all wrapped in a bold—preferably glass—architectural statement that proudly shouts out: THIS IS OTTAWA’S LIBRARY!

It reads as a loud and extroverted vision for a library. Is that not a bit strange for a library? Are not libraries quiet and contemplative places? Yes, yes. I know. Libraries are changing. Digital technology. Virtual space. But are libraries really changing as a response to technology?

Reviewing the wishlist from the report makes me wonder if people were describing a library, a community centre, or maybe even an image of their ideal neighbourhood. It is not that surprising. Libraries are one of the few remaining free public civic buildings. In an increasingly privatized and commercialized city, libraries and parks are two of the few public building projects we can target for our wishlist for shared community space. Certainly there is room for overlap between different community spaces but there are also ways in which the different programs conflict.

We should be careful not to lose the library amidst the noise of a “dream big” wishlist for public space. By the same token, we should not ignore the clear thirst for more public space by hoping to cram it all into a single building project.

I take issue with several of the recommendations and conclusions in the latest report. First, the jump from the renew, renovate, redevelop options to abandoning the existing library and building new. The report recommends a central library of 132,000 sq.ft. to accommodate the functional programming that emerged from combining best practices, the Ottawa context and existing OPL branch network, and the public wishlist. The existing building only offers a total of 109,000 sq.ft. leading the writers of the report to conclude that the only solution is a new building.

If I were to add up all the functional programming for my “dream big” home, it would not fit into a 600 square foot apartment. But there are two important factors as to why my 600 sq.ft. apartment is able to fulfill my housing needs and then some. First, a lot of the spaces in my apartment serve different functions at different times. Second, I live downtown and have easy access to places that fulfill my needs without having to have them contained within my private residence. Who needs a guest room and formal dining room when there is a hotel and huge selection of restaurants down the street?

Both factors are based on my willingness to make certain concessions and sacrifices because of the ever important consideration; location, location, location. Interestingly, several attendees reported that this major issue of pressing public concern was specifically left off the library roundtable. The “sky’s the limit” public consultation on the “central library” was limited to a wishlist definition of “library” but did not invite any discussion of “central”. Not only did this not provide participants an opportunity to identify the key considerations for defining a central location, it did not invite a discussion on how the location might impact the program.

If space is at a premium, could not some of the spaces serve multiple functions? And why exactly does a central library need a café, a staff exercise room, print facilities, meeting rooms, etc. when it is surrounded by coffee shops, gyms, printers, office space? If we want to discuss the option of public private partnerships, why not consider partnerships with a network of private enterprises scattered within easy walking distance that could provide different desired bonus but not entirely integral services? Let the library be the central program of the central library.

My second concern is with the architectural vision being promoted. Let me start by getting my personal taste out of the way and reiterate that I think Ottawa already has a landmark and architecturally significant Central Library. The existing library on Metcalfe is a stunning example of Canadian brutalism. I admit that concrete has gone out of fashion and glass is back in. But all the more reason to warn against so much focus on a flashy design that follows the current design trends.

Trends keep us from considering important design questions. Is a library a place to look out onto the city or a place to retreat from it? Do you want a bright open space to read your book or a cozy little nook? The history of library design continually shifts between these two somewhat contradictory ends of the spectrum, from extroverted to introverted.

Obviously I don’t mean to argue against my profession. I do mean to point out that architecture is more than the creation of an eye-catching, postcard (or selfie) ready, billboard for a city. A skillful and thoughtful architect is just as capable of designing an elegant and understated building that functions well, connects with the individual user, and creates value and meaning for the community it serves. It is a disservice to both the library and architecture to put so much emphasis on the look of the building.


Story + image: Sarah Gelbard, via yowLAB

This UrbSanity article has been cross-published: yowLAB is Ottawa’s architecture and design ideas lab, fostering and supporting collaborations and exchange of ideas in the community. Follow them on twitter @yow_LAB and on Facebook. *UrbSanity is also published in the Centretown Buzz.


  1. Remember that the Central Branch does not serve the entire City – there are 33 local branches that do that. Ottawa Public Library Facilities Investment and Growth Planning Study, December 8, 2010 states:

    “30,000 square feet of the Main Library (at 120 Metcalfe) was allocated to the “District” (D) library function of the Central District with the remainder allocated to the “Central”(C) library function.”

    For comparison purposes, below are some sample branches showing their 2006 Population in their Catchment Areas and the branch size

    Main Branch Catchment population 27,790 people/30,000 sq ft
    Beaverbrook Branch Catchment population 30,247 people/10,000 sq ft
    Hazeldean Branch Catchment population 41,264 people/9,713 sq ft
    Ruth E Dickinson Branch Catchment population 54,617 people/17,100 sq ft
    Nepean Centrepointe Branch Catchment population 36,852 people/36,940 sq ft
    St. Laurent Branch Catchment population 43,062 people/13,540 sq ft
    Cumberland Branch Catchment population 64,358 people/24,500 sq ft

    If we look at what the Community (Ward 14 – Somerset) needs for its community branch, 30,000 square feet should be adequate. With that out of the way, we can look at the added 102,000 square feet of City-wide “wishes” for large community open spaces, banquet facilities, a new OPL corporate headquarters, an exercise gym and everything else that came out of the “dream” session. If we focus on the community “need”, then the business case would be significantly different
    because there are a lot more options and lower cost for the smaller branch
    footprint. The City gathering area and tourist attraction could be addressed
    separately and located anywhere.

    The size of the proposed Central Library still has not been established using a needs approach and a proper analysis. OPL keeps referring to the Renovation Report dated 25 June 2014 as the source of the 130,000 square feet. In fact, a MFIPPA request revealed the report author did not analyse the requirements, but was given the space by OPL staff to use. A subsequent MFIPPA request for any
    documents and correspondence used by OPL staff to determine the space requirements revealed that none were prepared or available.

    Furthermore, directions to the author of the current report did not request a an analysis of the space requirements, but requested in the RFP “Recommend optimal functional components and spatial requirements for a maximum 130,000 square foot renewed Main Library”.

    Essentially, they were told to fill in the 130,000 square foot space. I would like to remind you that my analysis (at showed only 70,000 square feet is required for the combined community branch element and the City-Wide element.

    The 2008 study for a New Central Library arrived at a 345,800 square foot complex that would have cost close to $200 M. This went nowhere. The OPL appears to have learned from this and is now proposing a space that will keep the bill under $100 M that may be within the tax payer’s pain threshold.

    Unfortunately, this method of getting as much money as one can and then filling in the space later flies in the face of a real “needs” analysis.

  2. This article is so misguided. First of all, the purpose of a “sky’s the limit” exercise is to get ideas, not to implement every idea that has been discussed. This is also a forum for ALL people to give their input, not just people with urbanist backgrounds. This is for the people who are really using the library, and what they perceive are the limitations of the current building.

    Second, you are against building a new library when we have a perfectly good one right now. You have failed to mention that the entire reason the NEW option is preferred is that it was determined that current maintenance costs plus the sheer expense of the building would be astronomical when compared to what you would get out of a new building. Plus, it was identified that the library needs more space than it currently has. Considering its surroundings, the only place to go would be to build up, which would result in something bizarrely tacked onto the top. And most importantly, the current design is very poor in terms of accessibility and mobility, which the amount of elderly people and those with disabilities who are actually able to get out into the community and into our libraries is constantly increasing.

    Finally, just because a new library is made of glass on the outside doesn’t mean you can see through it from one end to the other. Architects are there for a reason. They know there’s a requirement for reading nooks and other spaces. These will be located behind actual walls inside the building. It wont just be floor after floor of spacious emptiness surrounded by windows.

    I agree that the currently preferred location is not ideal, but you didn’t actually even mention the location.

    Finally, it may be an example of a nice brutalist Canadian library, but Ottawa already has an even nicer brutalist Canadian library at uOttawa. Many cities are rejuvenating and re-imagining their tired old libraries because they are worn out (thanks to their many users day after day for many years) and because a city that proves they are willing to invest big dollars in arts and education is much more attractive than a city that just wants a new coat of paint.

  3. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the comments. Both from personal experience and research in the field of public participation, the point I’m trying to raise is more related to how public consultation is conducted not whether it should be conducted. Dream big are feel good exercises but I’m not convinced it leads to better informed planning.

    In the case of the library consultation, I was particularly concerned by the framing of the very specific three questions asked. They were classic “leading questions”, posed to a specific audience, and in my opinion, the report only represented the comments that were in line with the proposal as it was already presented at the public meeting. As mentioned, the survey conducted three years ago came to very different conclusions. I doubt opinion and needs have changed. The questions asked and who was asked is different.

    We should always be careful when using terms such as “preferred option” to include a critical analysis of “preferred by whom and why”. The preferred option in the architect-prepared report last year was redevelop. The preferred option this year by the library consultant group is new build.

    I absolutely want to encourage city spending and culture and education. But again, big showy projects make for sexy campaigns. Very necessary maintenance of infrastructure and programs are often at risk of being neglected because they don’t get the press coverage and public enthusiasm.

  4. Hi Mike,

    I agree that another piece of the puzzle not receiving much discussion is the role of the branch system and the relation of a Central library to the branches. Ottawa has 33 branches.

    I assume the catchment population you mention represent the resident population not overall estimated user base? I know the existing Main Branch has a large user base who work but don’t live in the area. Main was my branch both when I worked but didn’t live downtown and when I lived but didn’t work downtown. It would seem fair to account for the larger non-neighbourhood resident population in a central branch. But still, that doesn’t likely account for quadrupling the size.

    It certainly does seem to raise questions that the authors of the report were asked to program 130,000 sq.ft. and that their conclusion was that 130,000 sq.ft. is the recommended size.

  5. Hi Sarah,

    I now realize why I was having trouble and why my work was not fitting in with, or accepted by, the OPL. The problem was that I was taking a business-like approach, similar to the discipline that was imposed on me by the Federal Treasury Board and the Department of National Defence. That is, for buildings, I had to develop a statement of requirements for the minimum space, among other requirement, that the tenant organization needed to carry out its assigned tasks safely, efficiently and effectively. And these requirements were scrutinized before any business case was considered.

    After much research, including the recent reports, my theory is that the OPL is simply trying to obtain as much money as possible (the largest amount without going over a tax-payer or council pain threshold) and then making up requirements and filling in the space that this money will buy. I will call this the “Get as much money as possible” approach. I am preparing a paper that will demonstrate how the “Get as much money as possible” approach appears to more accurately describe the motivation behind actions by the OPL and the OPL Board, where a business-like approach could not, much to my consternation.

    You are justified in wondering how the 130,000 square feet remained the same when one looks at the drastic andd significant the space breakdown differences between the 2014 report and the 2015 report (compared in the paper I am preparing).

    I can get a copy of this paper to you when it is done.

  6. Hi Michael,

    Having professionally developed requirements for accommodating federal organizations (I use the term accommodate because leasing, outsourcing, and P3s, among more, are all options to a new building) and preparing the business cases to determine the best value for tax dollars, I favour the following Mark Twain quote:

    “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”

    The first step in any project was to replace perception and feelings with facts. I had no problem with the size of a building as long as the people who were paying for the building saw the size and costs of spaces grouped by: “need or must have”; “should have”; and “would like to have (wish list). The group or person footing the bill could then make a knowledgeable decision on how much they wanted to buy and how a possible funding reduction would affect the building’s performance. An all or nothing approach is very inefficient.

    For example, the OPL claims that it needs a lot more meeting spaces. Actual data on usage show that the existing meeting spaces, including the theatre, at the Main Library are underutilized, except for the computer lab and a meeting room on Sunday afternoons. The “company” line appears to be “build it and they will come.”

    You stated “Plus, it was identified that the library needs more space than it currently has.” See my reply to Sarah regarding the source of the space requirement of 130,000 square feet. Repeated access to information requests to the OPL through MFIPPA reveal that there has not been a basic “needs” analysis performed at any time. If anyone has substantiation for this space, I would like to see it. As stated in my original comment, an OPL study indicated that only 30,000 square feet are required to serve the community.

    Can’t agree more with you more about accessibility. In fact, those barriers to accessibility at the entrance are just wasting space.

    Here are some thoughts on location. And these are made possible if a realistic space analysis is performed. I prepared a real statement of requirements based on: real measurements at the Main Branch; actual usage data; observed activity in all areas of the Main Branch over several full days; and, future trends. The result was that only 70,000 square feet are required, and this included the OPL Corporate Headquarters. For location, if we look at a community branch first, consider sharing a part of the Government Convention Centre (old railway station) or using the old U.S. Embassy.

    I’ll reserve my views at this time regarding how many more iconic buildings Ottawa needs, and for which tax payers should shell out extra money above a good basic design, in addition to the Parliament Buildings, the Art Gallery, the new Convention Centre, the Natural History Museum, the many memorials, etc….