A new library is in the works for Toronto's east end, and for the first time, a new-build library in this city will feature Indigenous-inspired design as part of Toronto Public Library's ongoing efforts for reconciliation and Indigenous engagement. The Dawes Road Library in Toronto's East End, located at the corner of Dawes and Chapman Avenue and adjacent Taylor Massey Creek, is set to be replaced with a brand new facility that will greatly expand the library's services and will provide a community hub for the neighbourhood.

Rendering looking northwest, image courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The project is designed by Perkins&Will alongside Smoke Architecture, an Indigenous architecture firm based out of Hamilton. The three-storey, 25,500 ft² will contain a new plaza at street level, a kids' zone on the ground floor, a teen and youth hub on the second floor, and a rooftop garden and signature roundhouse gathering space on the third floor. The design team has gone through extensive engagement with the local community and the local Indigenous communities, which have both greatly influenced the design. The project is also targeting net-zero carbon emissions.

Rendering looking northeast, image courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The layered design draws influence from several different aspects of local Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee culture. The interior is organized as a series of "activity platforms" within a frame structure, which echoes the typical construction of a Haudenosaunee longhouse where an interior frame provides support for various surfaces used for sleeping, seating, and storage, among other activities. A three-storey atrium in the library provides visual connections between the three activity platforms of the building.

Diagram showing design concepts as layers, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The centrepiece of the library is the roundhouse, a circular room on the third floor that appears suspended above the atrium. The room is inspired by Anishnaabe roundhouses, and the symbol of a circle carries great significance in Indigenous culture. The roundhouse is a gathering place, and its circular shape and seating arrangement creates equality between all occupants while evoking symbolism in its references to the medicine wheel and cardinal directions.

Rendering of the roundhouse, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

At the top of the building, a "city garden" provides additional green space on the roof of the library, and can also be accessed directly from the roundhouse. The rooftop garden is a way to bring nature into the building, a prominent aspiration of Indigenous design values, and will also be populated with the four sacred Indigenous plants - sage, cedar, sweetgrass, and tobacco.

Third floor plan, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Finally, the entire building will be wrapped in a "blanket", which pays direct homage to Indigenous star blankets. The star blanket is a gift bestowed upon a person who has done exceptional work that benefits the community, and it wraps the respect and regard of the community around them. It acknowledges their contributions, and it is considered an honour to both give the star blanket and receive the star blanket. Wrapping the library in a metaphorical star blanket represents a mutual respect between the Indigenous community, the local community, and the library as a gathering place that provides invaluable benefits to the community as a whole. The patterning on the cladding of the library is an abstraction of the colourful, geometric patterns that typically appear on star blankets.

Diagram illustrating the pattern on the south elevation, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

At ground level, a plaza will be located along Dawes Road - referred to as the "front porch" of the building - that wraps around the south elevation along Chapman Avenue. The design team intends for a uniform design and paving from building to curb, meaning the sidewalk will be finished with the same pavers to create a more cohesive space. A series of planters and integrated seating completes the public realm.

Public realm plan, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

The project was presented to the Toronto Design Review Panel in January, 2022 and received much acclaim from the Panel members. They called it a "beautiful" and "remarkable" project, and they loved the integration of Indigenous concepts in the design as well as the ambitions to achieve net-zero emissions. They did, however, provide some suggestions to enhance the design of the building.

North elevation, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

A frequent comment from the Panel was the fact that the blanket wrapping the building was a bit too planar in spots and had lost a bit of the metaphor as a result, and while they acknowledged the structural complexities of building such a facade, they encouraged the design team to explore some ways of evoking more of a blanket feel.

West elevation, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

Regarding the pattern on the blanket, some Panelists felt that it should be more colourful than what is shown in the renderings, as the star blanket references presented by the design team often featured very vibrant colours. Other Panelists, however, appreciated the muted colours shown. It was also suggested that the blanket have a bit more porosity to it in order to display the layers on the interior, with one Panel member pointing out that the moment where the blanket opens over the main entrance to reveal the atrium and roundhouse inside is the most compelling part of the facade. They lamented that the blanket metaphor covered up the other ideas of the activity platforms and roundhouse happening on the interior, and it could be interesting to give more of a peek or another "slice" in the facade to provide a greater dialogue between the three concepts.

Rendering of the east elevation, image courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The Panel also cautioned about the mess of hydro poles and wires that currently exist around the building - and which are not shown in the renderings - as they could be detrimental to the appearance of the building and the viability of the public realm. The design team indicated that they were in talks to have the poles removed and the wires relocated underground, and the Panel emphasized that this was imperative for the success of the project.

Overall the Panel praised the project and were excited about the building, saying that it was "everything you want a library to be". There was no vote on the proposal.

Interior rendering on the second floor, image via submission to the City of Toronto.

We will keep you updated as the Dawes Road Library replacement works its way towards construction, but in the meantime, you can learn more and join in on the conversation in the associated Project Forum thread, or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.

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