The team behind one of Halifax's architectural diamonds has won a crown jewel of an award.

Fowler Bauld & Mitchell, the Halifax-based firm that designed the Halifax Central Library, was one of 12 recipients announced Thursday of the Governor General's Medals in Architecture.

George Cotaras, the architect of record for the project, said the firm learned of the win several months ago but they were asked to keep it a secret until the official announcement by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts.

A good but uncertain feeling about chances

While he felt good about the project's chances when the application when in, Cotaras said it was difficult to be too confident because the awards tend to go to projects in larger places such as Toronto and Vancouver.

"There aren't very many medals, Governor General's medals, in Atlantic Canada," he said.

"There's been several over the years but not a lot — and so you never know how we're going to rank amongst buildings from the rest of the country."

Halifax Public Library atrium

Jury members praised the Halifax Public Library as an "inviting, light, and playful public space." (Royal Architectural Institute of Canada)

Halifax's library was lauded by jury members as an "inviting, light and playful public space."

"This outstanding new civic building is a community gathering place that responds to the diversity of its users, accommodating many more activities than the traditional library," the jury wrote.

"The jury commends the process of early user engagement that led to the design, and the public's embrace of the building is a testament to its value."

Resounding success

The library has been a resounding success since the day it opened, with visitor numbers far exceeding expectations. A big reason for its success was in the design process, which relied heavily on community consultation and inclusion, said Cotaras.

tiny paintings

Some of the 5,000 tiny paintings by Cliff Eyland in the Halifax Central Library.

Five public meetings included a lot of participation so people felt like they were heard and their opinions mattered.

"It wasn't the kind of public consultation where somebody stands in the front of a room with 200 people and makes a presentation and says, 'There, what do you think?'"

People felt included in the design process

The proof that people's opinions mattered and were considered showed on the day the library opened, said Cotaras.

"They knew what it was going to be like but they had never been able to see inside and when they came in they went, 'Wow,' and people were going around saying 'Wow, that was my idea. I suggested that.'

"And it's true. People can say that that was their building by just parts of it that they had influence on."

Great architecture is a balance of form and function. Finding that balance is key to a successful project, said Cotaras. A good project satisfies the requirements of the customer while also achieving something with the outside.

halifax central library grand opening

A view from the second floor of the new library. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

"You have to work hard to make it work," he said.

And while his firm doesn't design buildings to win awards, Cotaras acknowledged the medal is a feather in his firm's cap.

"If our clients are happy with the building in the end, we're happy. If you win an award like this, then that's icing on the cake."

Halifax Central Library wins GG architecture award

The Halifax Central Library was the only Atlantic Canada medallist out of 12 chosen for the Governor General's Medals in Architecture. (Royal Architectural Institute of Canada)

The full list of winners:

  • Amphithéâtre Cogeco in Trois-Rivières, Que.: Paul Laurendeau architecte/Beauchesne Architecture Design
  • BC Passive House Factory in Pemberton, B.C.: Hemsworth Architecture
  • Bridgepoint Active Healthcare in Toronto: Stantec Architecture Ltd./KPMB Architects/HDR Architecture/Diamond Schmitt Architects
  • Glacier Skywalk in Jasper, Alta.: Sturgess Architecture
  • Halifax Central Library in Halifax: Fowler Bauld & Mitchell
  • Nathan Phillips Square Revitalization in Toronto: PLANT Architect Inc./Perkins+Will
  • Regent Park Aquatic Centre in Toronto: MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects
  • Ronald McDonald House BC & Yukon: MGA | Michael Green Architecture
  • Head Office of Caisse Desjardins de Lévis in Lévis, Que.: Anne Carrier architecture/ABCP architecture
  • University of Manitoba ARTlab in Winnipeg: Patkau Architects/LM Architectural Group
  • Wong Dai Sin Temple in Markham, Ont.: Shim-Sutcliffe Architects
  • Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George, B.C.: MGA | Michael Green Architecture