Earlier this month, the Snøhetta– and Dialog-designed new Central Public Library (CPL) in Calgary opened its doors to the public. The 22,297-m2 (240,000-sf) library will fill a vital role in a rapidly expanding city. As Calgary’s largest public investment since the 1988 Olympics, the new building provides spaces for social interaction, learning, and introspection.
The building is sited within a complex urban condition, where a fully operational light-rail transit (LRT) line crosses the site from above to below ground on a curved half-moon path. In response, the design lifts the main entry over the encapsulated train line. Gently terraced slopes rise up to the heart of the building, allowing for people arriving from every direction to interact with the library. Outdoor amphitheatres nestled into the terraces provide places for people to sit and for library programs to spill outside. Plantings referencing the native landscape draw Calgary’s mountains and prairies into the cityscape, and line the plaza’s surrounding streets with elms and aspen trees.
The dynamic, triple-glazed façade is composed of a modular, hexagonal pattern. Aggregated variations on the hexagon form scatter across the building’s curved surface in alternating panels of fritted glass and iridescent aluminum. Parts of the pattern might resemble an open book, snowflake-like linework, or interlocking houses, anchoring the ideas of the collective and community. Most importantly, the entire building volume is enclosed in the same pattern, allowing all sides to function as the ‘front’ of the building. This visual vocabulary continues inside, expressed in the design of CPL’s new visual identity and wayfinding signage, unifying the library’s goals of inclusivity.
The crystalline geometry of the façade is carved away to reveal an expansive wood archway. Framing the entrance of the building, the form references the Chinook cloud arches common to the region. Created entirely of planks of western red cedar from B.C., the double-curved shell is among one of the largest freeform timber shells in the world. Its organic form and texture bring the large building down to a tactile, intimate scale.
As the archway continues into the lobby and atrium, the wood spirals upwards over 26 m (85 ft) to a view of the sky through the oculus. Wood slats line the perimeter of the open atrium, shaped like a pointed ellipse, serving as an orientation device for people to grasp the circulation and organizational logic of the library. Inside, the concrete structure is left exposed and unfinished, hinting at the open-ended possibilities within. The rhythm of beams and columns are reminiscent of a stoa, the public, open-air colonnades of ancient Greek architecture that doubled as spaces of gathering and intellectual exchange. The rawness of the material palette is intended to give people the sense the library is a place of engagement, rather than a sacrosanct repository for books.
Organized on a spectrum of ‘fun’ to ‘serious,’ the library program locates the livelier public activities on the lower floors, gradually transitioning to quieter study areas on the upper levels. At the street level, a series of multipurpose rooms line the perimeter of the building, enhancing the connectivity between inside and outside. On the ground floor, a children’s library offers playhouses providing space for crafts and drawing-based activities, early literacy programs, and a full-body indoor play experience.
Throughout the six floors, a variety of spaces provide for digital, analog, group, and individual interactions. At the uppermost level of the library is the Great Reading Room that provides a space for focused study and inspiration. Readers enter through a transitional space with softened light and acoustics. Vertical wood slats line the space to provide both privacy and visibility, defining an interior space without using solid walls. Natural light illuminates the space through the wood slats.
At the northernmost point of the library is the Living Room that overlooks the train line. Filled with light and activity, this prow of the building will serve as a vantage point to observe the impact of a building that hopes to re-energize the spirit of culture, learning, and community in Calgary.