Calgary

OPINION | The more I visit Calgary's new Central Library, the less I like it

Yes, Calgary’s new Central Library has received international design praise, but I have to wonder if these out-of-town reviewers were only interested in how it looks and not how it functions.

I can't shake the feeling we built the thing more for form than function

A C-Train whizzes past Calgary's new Central Library. The presence of the LRT tracks created some inherent design challenges with the site. (The Canadian Press)

Architectural Digest says it's one of the most futuristic new libraries in the world and Azure magazine called it the best "civic landmark" built in 2018.

Yes, Calgary's new Central Library has received rave reviews internationally, but that is what you expect when you hire a "starchitect" firm. And, at $1,000 per square foot, we should hope the building is spectacular-looking — and functional, too.

But I have to wonder if these out-of-town reviewers were only interested in how the new Central Library looks and not how it functions.

I know it's probably sacrilegious to say this, but perhaps we were too focused on creating an iconic building for East Village when it came to designing our new Central Library. After several visits, I began to wonder if we should have focused more on the limitations of the site for a public building of this type.

I met with Kate Thompson, CMLC vice-president of development, to discuss my concerns. I think she was surprised when I said I felt the new library turns its back on East Village in much the same way as the Municipal Building.

For years, urban designers have been lambasting the designers of the Municipal Building — a.k.a. Blue Monster — because it cut off downtown from East Village. Yet, the new Central Library's east side isn't much of an improvement.

There is a fun little bobbing alien greeting visitors approaching the library from the east side, but there's also a lot of concrete and blank walls. (Richard White)

Yes, there is a fun, bobbing alien to greet you. But the dark, reflective windows above the long, blank wall, followed by a concrete embankment of poorly designed stairs and seating doesn't create the most welcoming environment for people approaching on foot from the east.

And it's been well documented that "blank walls" don't make for good pedestrian experiences.

Blank is boring

Rather than a blank wall, there could have been mural, perhaps something like Ron Moppett's colourful 950,000-mosaic-tile piece that graces another concrete wall in East Village.

Or maybe the stairs and seating could have been enhanced with some colour to create a whimsical entrance that would have been in keeping with the playful, bobbing alien. Could there have been some openings in the wall, so pedestrians could see the trains emerging from the tunnel?

Something — anything — to make it less boring.

This colourful mosaic by artist Ron Moppett brightens another part of Calgary's East Village. (Jason Ronald)

Danish architect Jan Gehl, a leading urban designer and champion for making cities more people friendly, has observed that people in cities around the world walk more quickly in front of blank facades compared with places that have doors, window, seating and awnings.

And psychologist Colin Ellard has documented how boring urban streetscapes impede on humans' biological need for novelty and discovery. He notes fellow psychologist Daniel Berlyne's theory of "perceptual curiosity," which describes our incessant thirst to explore new places — or at least places where there is something new and interesting to see.

Which brings us back to the library's east side.

A view of Calgary's new Central Library, when approaching from the east. (Richard White)

Thompson, with CMLC, explained that the site had many design restrictions due to the LRT trains emerging from the tunnel at the end of the block.

For one, the building had to be raised 5.5 metres above street level, making it impossible to have an opening in the middle or an at-grade entrance anywhere on the block. 

She also noted the arch opening in the middle of the building, lined with wood, was designed to allow street pedestrians to see through the building and break up its facade rather than having an imposing, solid-glass wall like the Municipal Building next door.

But what about those stairs?

Inconvenience and danger 

I have entered the building several times on the east side and every time someone said "these stairs are dangerous." Why? Because the concrete steps are almost indistinguishable from the concrete seating areas next to them.

If a group of people are going up and down the stairs, someone has to move over into the seating area and, before you know it, somebody is stumbling. A young woman did stumble and fall, the last time I visited. On another visit, I found an older lady huffing and puffing, bouncing a small piece of luggage up, stair by stair.

Stairs and seating side by side on the way up to the Central Library's main entrance. (Richard White)

To be fair, there is a 125-metre ramp (the length of a CFL football field) on the west side of the building that many parents with strollers and some wheelchair patrons use to access the library.

But, if you need an elevator, you have to go around the block to the east side, into a small lobby, up the elevator and then back outside — all to get to the main entrance.

Thompson said she hadn't heard any complaints about the stairs. As for the elevator, she said integrating the existing indoor theatre elevator (which is just a few feet from the stairs on the west side) was rejected by the library, as they didn't want two outside entrances.

So yes, the new library looks great. But the more I visit, the more I wonder if this was the best site for it.

Site restrictions

Thompson assured me they tried to create a grand street entrance but just couldn't make it work, due to the restrictions created by the LRT tracks.

Plus, without any underground parking, she said the site wasn't desirable for other types of commercial or residential use. If it wasn't used for the new library, she and her colleagues worried it could have remained undeveloped for decades. 

But surely there were some other uses?

Could it not have become a sculpture park, rather than having public art scattered throughout East Village?  What about affordable housing that doesn't need much parking, if any?  The nearby N3 condo has no parking. Could it, or something similar, have been built there? Could it have been used to create a permanent downtown farmers / artists market?  Maybe even a dog park?

The old Central Library, seen in 2017. (Calgary Public Library)

I can't help but wonder if perhaps Calgary should have gone Edmonton's route and renovated our old central library, inside and out. Edmonton spent just $84 million on the mega-makeover, compared to Calgary's $245 million for an iconic building on a difficult site.

The old library site would have allowed for a better link to the street, LRT station and bus stops, as well as better linkages to downtown.

And we could have saved a whack of cash, to boot.

What next?

Don't get me wrong. I love the new library's playful facade, the warmth of the wood and the uplifting feeling of the interior staircase and skylight.

But I hate the cold, bland, dangerous concrete stairs and the streetscape on both the east and west sides. And I hate that those who are mobility challenged have go to such lengths just to get in the building.

So, I can't help but wonder: Are we trying too hard to make East Village the "poster community" on Calgary's quest to become an international design city?

Shouldn't a building as important as a Central Library have been located on a prominent site, where it could be viewed from all sides, with some space around it (like, Calgary's first central library in Memorial Park) and not tucked away behind the Blue Monster where nobody can see it until they are upon it?

But we have what we have. So, what can we do to improve the streetscape?

Parking lots currently lie to the east of the Central Library. (Richard White)

For starters, the concrete walls could become a canvas for a mural or two, to enhance the pedestrian experience.

The library could also add an entrance for those who are mobility challenged to more conveniently enter at street level and allow easy access to the existing elevator.

There are also two surface parking lots on the east side of the library. It will be critical that these sites be developed in a manner that adds some character and charm to what is now a cold, concrete and secluded space.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca


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About the Author

Richard White

Author Everyday Tourist blog

Richard White has served on the Calgary Planning Commission (Citizen at Large), the Calgary Tourism Board, The Calgary Public Art Board, and the Tourism Calgary Board. He writes a blog called Everyday Tourist about our city, and has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.

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