The dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter of UW’s Dana Porter Li­brary

Grand Magazine - - ARTS & ENTERTAINM­ENT - BY KARL KESSLER PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY AN­DREJ IVANOV Karl Kessler is co-or­di­na­tor of Doors Open Water­loo Re­gion.

Wed­ding cake. Su­gar cube. Flash cube. Any doubt that its var­i­ous nick­names are af­fec­tion­ate is set aside by the count­less pho­tos of the Univer­sity of Water­loo Dana Porter Li­brary in all sea­sons, in ev­ery sort of light, shared on every­thing from post­cards to In­sta­gram dur­ing the past half-cen­tury.

En­vi­sioned as the Li­brary for the Hu­man­i­ties and So­cial Sciences, or Arts Li­brary, it was built be­tween 1964 and 1970, and de­signed by Toronto’s Shore and Mof­fat and Part­ners, ar­chi­tects of other 1960s Water­loo cam­pus build­ings.

“Be­cause of its re­la­tion­ship to the cam­pus cen­tre group, this build­ing can af­ford to be of a dis­tinc­tive ar­chi­tec­tural char­ac­ter,” stated the 1962 build­ing com­mit­tee brief to the ar­chi­tects. Doris Lewis, univer­sity li­brar­ian, was com­mit­tee chair.

Along with the 1960s Arts Lec­ture Hall and Mod­ern Lan­guages build­ings, Dana Porter de­fines the edge of a plaza. It’s on high ground, vis­i­ble from long dis­tances; a fo­cal point.

Its plan is square. The sunken first floor, in a moat to per­mit day­light, is a rough-faced ma­sonry plinth sup­port­ing the en­trance level above, a re­cessed ar­cade of con­crete el­lip­ti­cal arches with win­dows be­tween. Like draw­bridges, two sets of steps cross the moat.

The third floor, a plat­form, ex­tends be­yond the se­cond. The fourth is re­cessed. Above that, an as­cetic, al­most-cube of pre­cast con­crete ap­pears to float. Hun­dreds of win­dows – small, in­cised slots – per­fo­rate the façade.

It’s im­pres­sive, not per­fect. “Invit­ing” is not a word that springs to mind. In­side, there are no sweep­ing, open ar­eas typ­i­cal of big li­braries. Its spa­ces are filled nearly to ca­pac­ity.

But it’s stun­ning, year-round. Gleam­ing like a salt crys­tal by day, at night it’s a lantern, light spilling out all over its sur­face. In­side, it buzzes, filled with stu­dents sit­ting at car­rels by the perime­ter win­dows, work­ing hard.

It’s not the only mid-20th cen­tury li­brary that could be mis­taken for a fortress. But the ges­ture is un­der­stand­able – pow­er­ful.

If it looks a bit like a locked safe, what is its trea­sure? Con­tem­pla­tion. Study. Creativ­ity. If it’s some­what of a blank can­vas, it’s an in­vi­ta­tion to dream some­thing new.

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