Calgary’s dazzling new urban hub reaffirms the worth of the modern Library.
In the age of search engines and smartphones, what do we need libraries for? According to architect Craig Dykers of Snøhetta, we need them for the same reasons we always have. “The library has existed for thousands of years, and for much of that time, books hadn’t even been invented as a way of storing knowledge,” Dykers says. “So we must understand that books are not the only value a library has to offer; they also have social value, as places to gather and exchange knowledge.”
The space around us proved his point: Dykers and I were standing in the vast atrium of the new Calgary Central Library, which Snøhetta recently completed in collaboration with Canadian firm DIALOG. A six-storey wood-lined atrium and stair stretched above our heads. “It grabs your attention immediately as you walk in because it’s the first thing you see, with stairs that spiral all the way up to the highest level of the building,” Dykers says of the feature. “We wanted it to be intuitive, so that you can understand the building’s organization as soon as you walk in the door. The stairs are about ascension and connection; they pull you into the unknown.”
As a whole, the library serves that same goal, in a practical sense, very well. The 22,297-square-metre building provides a range of spaces, from a 232-square-metre indoor playground on a lower level to a dignified, oak-panelled reading room at the top.
Collections and programs are geared to various users, from small children – Calgary’s population of 1.2 million includes about 90,000 kids under five – to those interested in local history and genealogy. Snøhetta’s scheme provides spaces for these visitors in a loose spiral around the atrium, with more public and active uses at the bottom and research-oriented ones up top. “It’s a progression from fun to serious,” Dykers explains.
The library also succeeds as a symbol. The hexagonal-grid curtain wall offers a memorable visual language; the great curved mass of the building, which evokes a ship in dry-dock, implies movement and a creative spirit. The fact that an LRT line passes right through the building only adds to its sense of urbane complexity. It is an icon.
And Calgary needs one: This is a metropolis whose built form is largely nondescript and whose public realm is steadily improving but still underdeveloped. Snøhetta’s design – along with the library’s ambitious set of public programs – makes an argument for the importance of public places. “A library of the future is the same as the library of the past,” Dykers says. “Even if they hold artifacts of the past, you use them to open a door to the future.” In this case, that door opens to a city with stronger communal spirit – intellectually curious and ready to come together.