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The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - GLOBE ARTS - ALEX BOZIKOVIC abozikovic@globe­and­ Fol­low me on Twit­ter: @alexbozikovic

How li­braries be­came the lo­cus of cre­ative build­ing de­sign in Canada

Imag­ine a slab: a low box clad in lime­stone and glass. Then place it on the crest of a hill and split it down the mid­dle, one piece pressed down into the earth and the other slant­ing up to the sky. This is the three-di­men­sional drama that an­i­mates the new Wa­ter­down Li­brary and Civic Cen­tre in Hamil­ton.

In­side, more twists. Walk in the door, and you can wind your way to the top of the hill: climb­ing a se­ries of ramps lined with gen­er­ous win­dows and slats of Douglas fir, past green roofs and through six lev­els of a li­brary filled with colour and dashed with sun­light on all sides. At the top, the pay­off: long views from the height of the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment, tak­ing your eye be­yond the sub­ur­ban road to the broad to­pog­ra­phy that de­fines this place, the arc­ing shore of an an­cient sea.

The lat­est in a string of ex­cel­lent pub­lic build­ings from its ar­chi­tects, RDHA, the build­ing is fresh proof that li­braries are the lo­cus of cre­ative ar­chi­tec­ture in Canada. Wa­ter­down brings to­gether an el­e­gant metaphor and ac­ces­si­bil­ity with a sense of place – and shows how ex­cel­lent art can emerge from con­straints.

Plus you can find books here, or pay your taxes. The 23,500square-foot fa­cil­ity com­bines the li­brary branch with a se­niors’ recre­ation cen­tre, and smaller func­tions in­clud­ing an archive and a mu­nic­i­pal cus­tomer-ser­vice of­fice. These are folded neatly into those two boxes: li­brary above, and other func­tions be­low.

“It’s de­cep­tively sim­ple,” says its lead ar­chi­tect, RDHA part­ner Tyler Sharp. “It’s essentially a box … but when you look care­fully at what’s hap­pen­ing, there is a lot of com­plex­ity.”

And that com­plex­ity is ex­pressed in the up­hill prom­e­nade.

To un­der­stand this, you need to think three-di­men­sion­ally. “Most li­braries want to be a sin­gle-storey build­ing,” Sharp ex­plains. That makes it easy for li­brar­i­ans to greet pa­trons and keep an eye on ma­te­ri­als, and saves money. In this case the ar­chi­tects at Toronto-based RDHA, who have de­signed about 10 li­braries since 2005 in­clud­ing a Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral’s Medal-win­ner in Toronto, wanted to re­sist that con­straint. In­stead, they imag­ined the build­ing as a frag­ment of the es­carp­ment, push­ing up from the ground.

Li­brar­i­ans – at least Hamil­ton’s – un­der­stand metaphor, and the ar­chi­tects won ap­proval for the com­plex scheme. The key was link­ing the build­ing’s two en­trances, and the six lev­els within the li­brary it­self, with a se­ries of low ramps, at a 1:20 slope. This makes “a kind of pub­lic land­scape,” Sharp ex­plains, “that you as­cend to reach the dif­fer­ent pub­lic pro­grams at dif­fer­ent lev­els.”

These in­clude a lobby with the city cus­tomer-ser­vice win­dow; an en­try to the li­brary, and a nearby chil­dren’s area where the ceil­ing drops down for co­zi­ness and acous­tic con­trol; and then lev­els of book­stacks and glassed-in read­ing rooms. It is all highly trans­par­ent, min­i­mal in its ma­te­rial choices of pol­ished con­crete, tem­pered glass and re­cy­cled Douglas-fir slats.

Hav­ing got­ten to the top of the li­brary, you are in an atrium stud­ded with colour­ful chairs; from there, you can (in warmer months) exit through a door onto a ter­race. “We imag­ined a full cy­cle of cir­cu­la­tion,” Sharp says, “a full cy­cle of move­ment in the build­ing, all the way up and back down through a ter­race.

“This is a sin­gle-storey build­ing,” he adds, “but it’s a sin­gle­storey build­ing that is on six dif­fer­ent lev­els.”

This is hard to cap­ture in the two-di­men­sional draw­ings that guide con­struc­tion. (The build­ing came in on bud­get, and is ex­cep­tion­ally well-built, but was at least a year be­hind sched­ule.)

Yet, para­dox­i­cally, the build­ing man­ages to serve the li­brary’s prac­ti­cal needs in an era when the in­sti­tu­tion is be­com­ing less fo­cused on books and more on be­com­ing a space for pro­gram­ming, cre­ativ­ity and pub­lic gath­er­ing. “For us, the key word is flex­i­bil­ity,” says Karen An­der­son, the Hamil­ton Pub­lic Li­brary’s di­rec­tor of pub­lic ser­vice, “be­cause there is this chang­ing dy­namic about how li­braries are be­ing used and per­ceived – so you want to set your­self up for the fu­ture.”

The de­sign, Sharp adds, “speaks a lan­guage of ac­ces­si­bil­ity.” The slopes also make the en­tire build­ing ac­ces­si­ble to peo­ple with mo­bil­ity is­sues, meet­ing Hamil­ton’s bar­rier-free de­sign guide­lines. Poli­cies such as that, and leg­is­la­tion in­clud­ing the 2005 Ac­ces­si­bil­ity for On­tar­i­ans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, in­creas­ingly re­quire all pub­lic build­ings to be­come gen­uinely ac­ces­si­ble to ev­ery­one.

This is a moral and prac­ti­cal ques­tion that the li­brary takes to heart. “Ac­ces­si­bil­ity … is at the fore­front of all of our projects,” An­der­son says. “Be­cause we’re serv­ing the en­tire com­mu­nity: If a build­ing is in­clu­sive and ac­ces­si­ble and pleas­ant to use, for moms with strollers to se­niors – if ev­ery­one can use the build­ing, then we’ve done the right thing.

“And if peo­ple see that they’re able to use the build­ing com­fort­ably,” she adds, “they are more likely to come.”

There’s no ques­tion that the build­ing is both com­fort­able and beau­ti­ful. Its out­side is clad in thick slabs of lo­cally quar­ried lime­stone, an­other ex­pres­sion of its ties to this place, and pan­els of glass that are printed with ver­ti­cal strips of ce­ramic frit­ting. The views are epic. A clerestory win­dow up top brings in gen­tle north light, help­ing wash the in­te­rior. And the sub­tle slope of the floor feels both sur­pris­ing and per­fectly com­fort­able.

There is a les­son here about de­sign, and about cre­ativ­ity in gen­eral. Sharp cites the build­ing as an ex­am­ple of “a pa­ram­e­ters­based ar­chi­tec­ture,” an in­tel­lec­tual ten­dency that orig­i­nates with the Dutch ar­chi­tect Rem Kool­haas and his firm, OMA. This be­gins with an anal­y­sis of a build­ing’s site and com­po­nents, of­ten ex­pressed in a di­a­gram of boxes; and then through coun­ter­in­tu­itive leaps of logic, the boxes torque, warp and shift into wildly un­ex­pected con­fig­u­ra­tions. At OMA’s Seat­tle Cen­tral Li­brary, “clus­ters” of dif­fer­ent func­tions slide this way and that, stretch­ing the skin of the build­ing like a tex­tile. The Dan­ish ar­chi­tect Bjarke In­gels, who worked on that li­brary, is a mas­ter at this sort of crazy-but-log­i­cal form-mak­ing.

“Some­times the ef­fect is not as ra­tio­nal as the ini­tial dis­cus­sion,” Sharp says with a smile, “but I try to use con­straints as po­ten­tial op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Yes: Some ar­chi­tects com­plain, in­ex­cus­ably, about ac­ces­si­bil­ity re­quire­ments. Most of us wouldn’t let a one-storey build­ing climb a hill. But this is how great pub­lic space gets built, when ar­chi­tec­ture reaches for new heights.

Hamil­ton’s Wa­ter­down Li­brary and Civic Cen­tre demon­strates how build­ings can em­brace chal­leng­ing to­pog­ra­phy, in this case the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment. ‘Some­times the ef­fect is not as ra­tio­nal as the ini­tial dis­cus­sion,’ ar­chi­tect Tyler Sharp says, ‘but I try to use con­straints as po­ten­tial op­por­tu­ni­ties.’ The de­sign also re­flects a li­brary’s new role as space for cre­ativ­ity and pub­lic gath­er­ing.

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