Not just a repository for books but an agora of exceptional beauty
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When Calgary’s new Public Library was opened in November 2018 by astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space, he must have felt at ease as the library has something truly cosmic about it. Its extraordinary architecture redrew the geography of this city located in the Canadian province of Alberta, in a region of alternating hills and plateaus some eighty kilometres to the east of the Rocky Mountains. It is also fairly extraordinary that culture should be at the centre of the city’s most important economic investment since it hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. The result of a $245 million investment and five years of work, this 22,000 square metre space is first and foremost a place for engagement and socialisation, a kind of ancient Greek agora for the community – as confirmed by the fact that more than half of all Calgarians (700,000) are already library members. „It wasn’t cheap but it’s about a lot more than books and a quiet place to sit,“ said mayor Naheed Nenshi. The library truly represents a new chapter in the life of the city and plays a major role in promoting engagement and dialogue between citizens with very different origins, interests and lives. More than 16,000 Calgarians participated in an extensive public engagement programme to provide input into the function and role of the Central Library and an international competition was launched to choose the architects. The competition was won by the large Norwegian-American firm Snøhetta, whose portfolio includes projects for the new library in Alexandria in Egypt, the Memorial Museum Pavilion at the World Trade Center in New York and the redesign of the public space of Times Square in New York. The design firm Dialog also contributed to the Calgary Public Library project.
The building, located on the LRT line that crosses the site on a curved half-moon path dividing Calgary’s downtown and East Village, functions as a visual and material link between the two areas, a kind of bridge and gateway that together with the entrance plaza re-establish visual and pedestrian connections.
The triple-glazed façade is composed of a modular, hexagonal pattern of alternating glass and aluminium panels that almost suggest the shape of books. The large wooden archway welcoming visitors is inspired by the Chinook arch clouds which occur frequently in the region. Created entirely from western redcedar planks from the neighbouring province of British Columbia, the double-curved shell is one of the largest freeform timber shells in the world. Its organic shape and consistency create an intimate, tactile sensation that continues inside the building, where the wood spirals upwards for more than 30 metres to embrace the patch of sky that provides important natural lighting. The library extends over six floors. The social activities are organised on the lower levels and include around 30 meeting spaces, a performance hall, a cafe, outdoor plazas and a children’s library; the higher floors house the study areas and on the uppermost level the Great Reading Room. The rhythm of beams and columns are reminiscent of Greek architecture, while the exposed and unfinished concrete structure underscores the active role of the library as a place of engagement. The design choices are reflected in the porcelain floor tiles from the Cemento collection by Casalgrande Padana, chosen by the architects in a grey colour and 30×60 cm size for their outstanding technical performance and exceptional aesthetic results when used in combination with wood, the dominant material of the building. This visually-striking project won the Institutional category of the Tile Competition 2019.