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Toronto Library Architecture


Apr 22, 2007
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Two articles, one by Lisa Rochon in the Globe and the other by Hume in the Star:


New library architecture is a clear victory
No longer staid and stodgy, the city's overhauled branches showcase the diverse activities that take place inside

April 11, 2009

In many ways, the architecture of Toronto's public libraries has evolved as much as the attitudes that govern them. Thick masonry walls and prim Victorian windows have given way to enormous sheets of glass. The newly opened Jane/Sheppard branch in Toronto's northwest fringes and the nearly completed Bloor/Gladstone heritage library in the city's west end are designed as glowing cubes of transparency. The librarian of yesteryear - the one with the wild eyes and pursed lips urging children to shhh!!! - has been replaced by a sort of leisure tour guide who leads visitors into worlds of music, computers, job skills and books.

The French invented a word for this: the médiathèque, and it means stacks of library books butted up against music-listening stations, computers, restaurants and art exhibitions. Which is what is finally being achieved in Toronto.

In small, thrilling ways, the city's public libraries have become impressive agents of change, attuned to the needs of a constantly evolving society. Libraries are designed these days with rooms for teenagers to gather and lounge on funky furniture. There are community halls where newlyweds can hold their wedding reception. At the Jane/Sheppard branch, which 900 people visited last week on its opening day, there are laptops for loan within the library. "There really was no there there," says Ken Fukushima, architect of the Jane/Sheppard glass cube. "Year round, by night, by day, through its transparency, the library declares itself to the community. We're trying to create a place that's cheerful and suggests a spirit of optimism."

Consider that the Toronto Public Library is the world's busiest urban public library system. And that every year, more than 17 million people visit its 99 branches and borrow more than 30 million items. (The Pompidou Centre in Paris attracts six million visitors annually.) Taken as a sum of its many parts, the public library in Toronto is a monumental civic project, ever unfolding, under regular reconstruction.

Last year, four libraries (Jane/Dundas, Cliffcrest, S. Walter Stewart and Dufferin/St. Clair) were opened after extensive renovations. This year, another four (Kennedy/Eglinton, Bloor/Gladstone, Jane/Sheppard and Thorncliffe) will be reinvented. And, in 2010, Cedarbrae in Scarborough will reopen as a $5-million light-filled transformation of a dated 1960s building, led by the talented young architect, Tina Ranieri-D'Ovidio of Makrimichalos Cugini Architects.

The public library operates increasingly in Toronto as an architectural idea - a place maker - within a neighbourhood. The Jane/Sheppard library used to be a modest space within the Jane Sheppard Mall. In sharp contrast, the new glassy library, doubled in space to 7,000 square feet, sits prominently on Sheppard Avenue, a heavily travelled corridor bereft of street landscaping. The community is a mix of Italian senior citizens and immigrants whose first languages include Cantonese, Spanish and Arabic. About 35 per cent of the users are children newly arrived in Canada. Concrete apartment towers, bungalows and townhouses dominate, and many of the units are social housing.

(Half of the Jane/Sheppard library site was turned over to Toronto Community Housing, which recently completed handsome new social-assisted townhouses.)

Wanting to provide some visual delight to the neighbourhood, the library and its architect, Mr. Fukushima, decided to place a landscaped reading garden by Matt Strybos Landscape Architects in front of the new building. This will effectively soften the edge of Sheppard Avenue with hearty evergreens, native grasses, seating and some gingko trees. The no-frills budget for the $2.5-million library seems barely realistic. Yet, somehow, Mr. Fukushima, who has devoted six years of his life to the project, has managed to produce a library that glows. Inside, there's a teen area close to the front entrance with diner-style banquette seating and quiet study lounges set next to the glass wall.

My vote for the most glittering public-library reinvention this year? The $7.5-million renovation of the Bloor/Gladstone library, a work of scrupulous integrity led by principal-in-charge Bob Goyeche and design architect Tyler Sharp of Rounthwaite, Dick & Hadley Architects, Inc., in association with Shoalts & Zaback Architects and ERA Architects.

What was previously an undersized district library is being transformed into a major civic landmark that lifts Bloor Street West. In this case, a historic Beaux Arts library (1913) is being forced into a lively dialogue with a contemporary glass jewel. Though the scale - and budget - may be different, the juxtaposition of old and new recalls the Norman Foster-designed Carré d'Art, a glass médiathèque that looks directly across a public square at a Roman temple in Nîmes, France.

Mr. Goyeche says he visited the Nîmes project in the early 1990s just after it opened, was inspired by the use of the neutral glass box as a foil to historic structures, and, yes, the Bloor/Gladstone library is a direct reference to it. "We really wanted to create something that had a level of European construction quality. Everywhere you look the planes are perfectly smooth and every line connects to another."

Leadership at the public library patiently supported the glass-box gesture. The cornice lines match the cornice lines of the Beaux Arts masonry building and there's a synergy between the five glass bays of the existing building and the five glass bays in the minimal glass piece. White porcelain panels will be installed on the west face and the back of the building to continue the shimmering effect of the glass. The central main floor of the existing building was removed to create a two-storey atrium and (though controversial among the city's heritage preservationists) it allowed for people in wheelchairs or pushing baby carriages to access the new front entrance by following a gently sloped exterior path.

"Before, you never saw people reading books," says Mr. Goyache. But now, reading lounges will be placed eight feet off the ground with direct views onto Bloor Street West. "It's great theatre."



Grown up over the last century in Toronto, the library makes room for people in search of poetry, for weary mothers and their children and, increasingly, for the newly unemployed. The idea of the library as refuge of the written word is a misreading of its global significance. It begins as a harbour for contemplation, and, from there, embraces countless needs and aspirations.

In the last half of 2008, visits to Toronto libraries increased by 8 per cent. It could be that the library has become a highly appreciated job centre. Use of library computers has increased by 13 per cent since the economy began to tank. In-library use of materials increased by 12 per cent in the last half of 2008.

It may seem like just an elegant turn of phrase to suggest that the public library serves as a community's well-appointed living room. But this is a practical truth. Many people using the public library live in cramped apartments, where space for study - or escape from the in-laws - is hard to come by.

"The library provides important public space to each neighbourhood," says Jane Pyper, the Toronto Public Library's chief librarian.

"This is particularly important during this economic downturn, when free access to technology, books, DVDs, job-seeking resources and entertainment is even more vital."

Lisa Rochon


Projects in the works

Thorncliffe Branch

(East York)

Joint project Parks, Forestry & Recreation and Children's

Services - Daycare.

Opening: November, 2009

Construction budget:


Architect: Phillip H. Carter

Architect in joint venture with Levitt Goodman Architects

Cedarbrae Branch


Opening: 2010

Construction budget:


Architect: Makrimichalos Cugini Architects Inc.

Brentwood Branch


Opening: 2011

Construction budget:


Architect: Diamond + Schmitt Architects Inc.



Apr 22, 2007
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New library livens dreary Sheppard stretch

Apr 13, 2009 04:30 AM
Christopher Hume

When is a building more than a building? The answer, of course: When it's a library.

Over and over the public library system in Toronto has shown itself unique in its understanding of the larger role it plays in the life of the city.

Unlike the rest of the civic bureaucracy, which would destroy Toronto in order to save its tiny part thereof, librarians have grasped the essential fact that their job is not simply to warehouse and catalogue books, but to improve quality of life, indeed, to civilize.

And if all this weren't enough, the library manages this despite underfeeding and constant cutbacks. In the last civic budget, for instance, Toronto Public Library received a 4 per cent increase, just enough to maintain services.

The most recent example of TPL enlightenment came last week when an exceedingly modest library opened quietly near the corner of Jane and Sheppard. This is not an area of town tourists seek out; in fact, it's as dreary a stretch of aging suburbia as we have. Sheppard has been back-lotted to the point where it's as dead as a street can be. Everything about it speaks of developer-driven growth and not of city-building. This is civic failure writ large.

The advent of a new library will not change all this, needless to say, and yet in its own quiet way, the new branch reverses decades of bad planning. Simply by addressing Sheppard, the library proposes a radically different relationship between buildings and streets and, by extension, buildings and the city. Rather than turn its back on the road and, therefore, the community, it faces out and invites us in. Almost everything built here in the past half-century tells us the opposite.

The garden that will grace Sheppard hasn't been planted yet, but it and the glass wall that looks onto the street add up to a tiny interlude of urbanity in an ocean of suburban indifference. Not surprisingly, residents are thrilled. Within four hours of opening on April 4, 900 people showed up.

The building, done by Cannon Design, is a case study in making a little go a long way. Shelves don't just hold books; they define space. So despite its relatively small size, 7,000 square feet, the library accommodates lounge and study areas as well as a kids' section. The light-filled interior feels comfortable, even cosy. There's no hint of the institutional here; it's a place clearly meant for users to enjoy. The usual technology, including computerized checkout and Wi-Fi, can be found, though unobtrusively. On the other hand, some details, such as windows that open, are decidedly low tech. This library resembles a living room more than a public facility.

Too bad about the hydro building next door, which goes beyond the usual ugliness and, bricks popping out, appears ready to fall down. And down the road, the corner of Jane and Sheppard boasts not one, not two, but three malls.

Now that's convenience.

"It's a lovely community," says TPL area manager Katherine Palmer, "and people are proud to live here. The library will be a key destination; it already is. We are the beacon on the hill, and a very public building."

With any luck, the library will be a turning point in the fortunes of the neighbourhood. The benefits are obvious even before it's completely finished.

But the TTC's decision to extend its new LRT west of Yonge along Finch, not Sheppard, means the street will remain pretty much in its present form for the foreseeable future. Sadly, except for interventions such as the library, what we see is what we'll get.

Christopher Hume can be reached at chume@thestar.ca