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Halifax’s next chapter

An urban-design success, a public-performance space and an architectural achievement—Halifax’s new library is one of the city’s most important developments in decades

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View of the back of the building from Queen Street. Photo: Submitted

View of the back of the building from Queen Street. Photo: Submitted

Kendra Barnes is a library junkie. She borrows about 100 items each month, and every other day for the last 15 years she would visit the now-defunct Spring Garden Road branch. “I’m a ‘power user,’” laughs the Fairview resident.

The aging, cramped and largely inaccessible (for people with mobility issues) library closed for good in August to make way for the new Central Library, a modern five-storey building opening this fall. The Keshen Goodman library is about the same size as one floor of the new Central Library. “Imagine that on five floors,” says George Cotaras, president of Fowler Bauld and Mitchell, the local architecture firm that designed the 129,000-square-foot space in collaboration with architect Morten Schmidt of the Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen.

The front facade in early October 2014, showing the cantilevered top floor. Photo: Janice Hudson

The new $57.6-million building has five levels of modern space centred on an open, light-filled atrium with sculpted stairways and sleek bridges. The top level is a skinny cantilevered box that seems to float over the entire building. With dedicated spaces for literacy programs, media labs for children, a performance hall, two cafés, a rooftop patio and lounge, the building turns the traditional idea of a library on its head.

“This library is different,” says Cotaras. “There are rooms for programs and events that the current downtown library couldn’t have. It’s more like a community centre than just a traditional library. It’s a connection to your world and the outside world all in one place.”

The role of libraries is changing, says Bruce Gorman, director of Central Library and regional services. “Libraries are places you’re not being shushed,” he says. “They have evolved and are not just about books and quiet spaces…This platform allows us to interact with the community. They’ve been engaged with this process from the beginning.”

Public consultations guided each aspect of the library’s design, including its dramatic modern look. “At our very first meeting, they said they wanted a building that said ‘wow,’” Cotaras says.

Barnes liked having a say in the process. “The best thing about having the public consultations was that they cared about what we wanted,” she says. “That’s unique in this city. I think this building will change the whole mood of the downtown.”

But it was challenging to take feedback, find consensus and turn that into design. “Things evolved during the process,” says Cotaras. “Early on, we had the administrative offices up on the top floor, but that changed very quickly after it got thrown out to the public.”

The central atrium is open and sleek, with stairways and bridges linking the floors. Photo: Janice Hudson

Barnes remembers that meeting. “We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a beautiful reading area for the public,” she recalls. Getting buy-in from the public early on helped propel the project. “Now when people see the building, they know that they were part of the design,” Cotaras adds.

The interior layout of the library is unique for its playfulness. “It’s sort of like going to Chapters and wandering around with a coffee in your hand and finding things by accident,” Cotaras says. While there is a distinct children’s area, for example, parents will find books tucked into the shelves there that will appeal to them, too. There is also snack area and stroller parking on this level. “These little details mean so much to people with small children,” says Karen Dahl, manager of youth services. “We don’t want them to feel like they have to travel far to do simple things.”

Staff offices, service stations and washrooms are concentrated in the middle core of the building. Though from the outside this part looks like windows, the “glass” is actually insulated wall material. The architects are aiming for LEED gold, a green rating system for buildings, so the exterior framing, insulation and drywall all have recycled content. The building also uses an efficient heat-recovery system.

The green roof on the top level collects rain water to flush the toilets and keeps the building cool on hot days. The sedums growing on the roof and the leaf-patterned lettering on the windows link back to the property’s history. “The building that used to be here, Bellevue House, had fantastic gardens in the back,” Cotaras says. “The urban myth is that this is where Spring Garden Road got its name.”

The new space has a traditional library collection with 50 per cent more materials than the old Spring Garden Road branch. But it also offers unique opportunities for programs, venues and services. “450,000 people used to walk through our old building each year and we expect that to double to 900,000,” Gorman says.

Bruce Gorman and Heather MacKenzie admire the views on the top level. Photo: Janice Hudson

Paul O’Regan Hall on the main level will be a big draw. A future venue for live music, theatre, lectures and author readings, the flexible space seats 300 and will boost the free public programming the library can host. “Our capacity is ramping up to a new level,” says Dahl. “We could host Mermaid Theatre or Neptune. It enriches the scale and possibilities of what we can do.”

In the children’s area on the second floor, there is a large program room, recording studio, creative arts space, music lab and games area. “This dedicated program space is a huge change,” Dahl says. “At the old building, we were competing for just a couple of small rooms. It’s an opportunity to have multiple things going on for young people, with access to these specialized spaces and cool equipment.”

She predicts plenty of hands-on teaching and sharing. “It may be the teen who is the expert at times…For video gaming, we can offer it as a collaborative, social thing. It’s not the stereotype of someone being tucked away in the basement. Maybe the eight-year-old has a Minecraft strategy that wows the 16-year-old.”

On the third floor, one wing is devoted to adult-literacy and language classes, with a learning lab, program room, and portable computer labs. “Our materials will be accessible outside of the programs, so learning can take place anytime,” says Heather MacKenzie, manager of diversity and accessibility. “And because of the extended hours and additional space, we’ll be able to add more learners and more sessions.”

Getting used to the new modern digs might take some time. “There was emotional attachment to the old building and I don’t think that’s a negative thing,” says Cotaras. Barnes can relate. “I can’t begin to imagine how many hours I spent there,” she says. “I had my favourite table on the third floor. I knew the staff there on a first-name basis.” She hopes the city will put the old building to new use as an arts/non-profit centre, perhaps a future home for the Khyber Centre for the Arts.

The terrace on the top floor, surrounded by the green roof of sedums, gives sightlines of the city and harbour. Photo: Janice Hudson

The library also has plenty of what Gorman calls “third space.” “It’s not home, it’s not work,” he says. “It’s a place where you can create whatever environment you like. The cantilevered box on the top level, dubbed the “Halifax living room,” is probably the best example of that. Floor-to-ceiling windows give dramatic sightlines of Citadel Hill, the surrounding streets and Dartmouth. “There will be soft seating along the windows, so you can grab a coffee and enjoy the views,” Gorman adds.

The terrace on the back has views of the port and beyond. “Anybody can come up here at any time,” says Gorman. “The view is similar to what you’d see at Purdy’s Wharf, which is not accessible to the public. Our view is free for everybody.”

Accessibility played a role in the design, too. Bumps on the floor at the top of each stairwell guide people with visual impairment, as do the large elevator buttons. There is also an info desk and map in front of the elevators on each floor.

With so much available at the new flagship downtown library, some worry the offerings at other branches will dwindle. “That won’t be the case,” assures Gorman. “We have new technology to move and sort the books much faster, so something can get to Sheet Harbour much faster.” MacKenzie says the new space enhances the value of the whole public library system, encouraging people to reconnect with their own branch. She notes that staff can now pilot new programs like 3-D printing at Central Library and then bring them to other branches.

The First Nations Circle on the third floor. Photo: Submitted

Ultimately, Cotaras thinks the building will change people’s minds about modern architecture. “People used to think that good architecture had to look like old buildings and I think that’s now gone,” he says. “We can have modern buildings co-exist with historic buildings. We are immediately adjacent to the faculty of architecture, an old building, and I think the two complement each other. Something brand new makes the old building look even more special.”

Barnes can’t wait for opening day. “It will create a traffic jam in the city,” she says. “I’ll go an hour before. We’ve been waiting for this branch since the 1980s, so it will be a very celebratory atmosphere when we get in. They’ll need staff going around with a Kleenex box because I know I’m going to cry.”

  • While I know we needed a new library, this is an ugly example of architecture. I’m sorry the money was not spent on another design and I’m sorry there is this ugly building in the middle of an otherwise beautiful city.
    I mostly regret the money did not go to future digital usage, as ALL of us will be online more in future.

  • As I said on Twitter yesterday and at greater length on Facebook today, I think this new library is absolutely beautiful. I lived through the creation of the new Toronto Reference Library (and ended up living across the street from the old one at College & Beverly streets, which became the University of Toronto bookstore). That was a specular building at the time. But this is a truly 21st Century creation.

    As ‪#‎Ottawa‬ begins the process of building a new main/central library (it was decided a few months ago that a new building was required rather than renovating the existing building), I hope we can follow the process of community consultation ‪#‎Halifax‬ used. I also hope we end up with a building half as beautiful and functional as this one. There is no reason why a library cannot be a meeting place and learning place for all. In fact, I like the idea of combining a space like CASA in Lethbridge (a community arts centre with studios and instruction in various arts and crafts – http://www.casalethbridge.ca/) with the media studios Halifax has created along with a traditional library with books and readings and movies and music.

    While I really like the idea of siting it in the Byward Market, it occurred to me yesterday that Somerset House, the controversial mostly demolished site at Somerset and Bank, would be a truly central location. And the city *does* want this to be a public-private partnership deal….

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