Ask a University of Toronto student what they think of Robarts Library — the concrete behemoth nicknamed Fort Book — and the responses you’ll get will be mostly unflattering. My own students have called it harsh, depressing, soulless, and ugly. These descriptions are correct only in the limited sense that feelings are always valid. For architecture nerds — and other kinds of nerds, including the medievalist and semiotician Umberto Eco, who set scenes from his novel The Name of the Rose in a Robarts-inspired stairwell — the building is a masterpiece, an exemplar of the brutalist form.
Why do students hate Robarts Library so much? The reasons are partly circumstantial: it’s hard to love a building you associate with exam-season panic. They’re partly cultural, too. The Bond films have taught us to think of grey, monumental buildings as sinister places where evil dwells.
The problem is also simpler. Schematically and architecturally, Robarts is a stunner, but the rooms really are terrible, having been mistreated so badly by generations of designers. A few spaces feature biomorphic or curvilinear forms, which are at odds with their angular surroundings. Others have dropped ceilings or random partitions that obscure the bespoke elements — the tactile, decorative flourishes — and the expanses of light and air, the very features that give Robarts its human warmth.
When the Toronto firm Superkül won a commission to transform the fourth floor of the library with an updated reading room, they sought not to imbue the space with new life but rather to restore the soulfulness that had once been there. (The commission is part of a larger transformation, enabled by digitization technology, whereby “book space” is now giving way to “people space.” Toronto stalwarts Diamond Schmitt recently added a five-storey glass “commons” to the west façade of the building, and Superkül won an additional commission to redesign Robarts Library’s fifth floor, a project that goes into construction this spring.)
On the fourth floor, the architects got rid of the clutter: the dividers and bookshelves that break up the open floorplan. Then they set a series of millwork pieces — desks, carrels, and banquettes, clad in white-oak veneer and outfitted with bronze fixtures — in patterns that reinforce the shape of the rooms, a series of tessellated triangles. “We wanted to augment the geometry of the existing building, not to fight it,” says Safoura Zahedi, the project architect.
This simple move changes everything: suddenly, a cramped, illogical space becomes gracious and rational. Wide passageways between the furnishings seem both to invite you in and to tell you where to go. In a multilingual environment, Zahedi argues, you don’t need signage for wayfinding; you need spaces that make intuitive sense. The new reading room is full of similarly subtle, yet thoughtful, accessibility features — adjustable tables and seating, task lighting, acoustic dampening, and bronze arms on the couches, which enable people to transfer over from a wheelchair.
The best features of the reading room are the tactile details. The base of the pillars are now wrapped in oak panels (perforated for acoustics) whose corner mouldings mirror the chamfers in the concrete above them. The computer areas are demarcated by latticework screens with hexagonal bars, a reference to the angular forms that proliferate throughout the building — from the triangular coffers in the ceiling to the semi-hexagonal reveals in the wall panels. “At Robarts, the human scale is quite refined,” says Will Elsworthy, the lead designer and project manager. “Look closely, and you’ll see that it’s cozy and surprisingly detailed.”
Students seem to be catching on. “We were there at 5 or 6 o’clock at night in November,” says Superkül co-founder Meg Graham, the partner in charge of the project. “The room was packed. You couldn’t find a place to sit.” If Robarts is a colossus, it’s a benevolent one, built for the people it serves.
The Toronto firm returns a sense of soulfulness to one of the city’s most maligned architectural masterworks.