Apr 13, 2015

Calgary's New Central Library

A few weeks ago the Planning Commission approved the development permit for the new Central Library, to be located on 3rd Street right behind City Hall.  Each CPC member praised the building design while asking questions ranging from the wind impacts through the central area to how the pedestrian space would function. The pedestrian realm is the point I want to focus on today, as it is the one aspect of the design where I think more could be done.

Kudos to the architects for locating the café and theatre space along the street frontage. How it will work with the Tim Horton’s across the street at Bow Valley College or the café within City Hall remains to be seen. There is a lot of activity at the intersection with the LRT already in place and given the number of visitors to the library, particularly those who do not drive, the pedestrian counts should be high.  

Yet, moving farther south along 3rd to the intersection with 9th Avenue, the design, as Councillor G. Carra noted during the hearing, raises a number of questions.

The proposed design of the open space to be located at the corner of 3rd St. and
9th Ave., raises questions about how the space will be used and by whom. The
evening rendering raises added issues of conveying a sense of light, “eyes on
the street”.

Who will use this space?  Why would someone go there to sit at the back side of City Hall at a busy intersection only at certain times of the day?  Until something happens on the south side of 9th, there is little to attract people there as the main lines of contact with the library will be through the centre entry leading to the 7th Street intersection.

A set of proposed steps can attract people. One of the representatives from the design firm presenting to the CPC last week mentioned the Spanish Steps in Rome. OK, this intersection certainly lacks an amenity of that scale. I was thinking more along the lines of the steps and tiered small green spaces alongside Union plaza in San Francisco and how the space functions so well for so many.  Small patches of lawn where people sit at lunch on the many steps creating the transition between the different elevations.  But that plaza is surrounded by activity, including the Macy’s store and it functions as a diagonal walk-through across a busy cluster of blocks in the city.  Yet it does give us a hint of what could happen here in terms of activity.

Union Square in San Francisco handles grade changes between the surrounding streets and the
plaza using steps and small grass terraces. The plaza works for a lot of reasons, including offering
places for people to experience the space differently. People sit on the grass or steps eating their
lunch. The plaza is well programmed with festivals and shows and the food pavilion is a catalyst
for people to arrive and stay longer. This is a series of photos I took in 2005 (not the first photo)
that highlight all the features I mentioned including the night time illumination that invites
pedestrians into the space.

Union Square is a programmed space, with a pavilion at either end, one of which is always open with a wonderful café not unlike the Boxwood restaurant in Memorial Park here in YYC that serves terrific food. Lots of tourists and locals visit the café but they also come for the art shows and other activities that always seem to be happening in Union Square. 

The Boxwood restaurant pavilion in Central Memorial Park here in YYC.
Looks great day or night, bringing street level activity onto a frontage of the park
 that is challenging. A destination and even when it is not in use, it activities. Can
the south end of our new library look to this as a model?
So can we revision the south end of the new library? The Planning Commission made a motion to just that.

What can we do to create a better place?  To create a destination, well programmed to attract people throughout the day and evening? Something that casts a wonderful glow across the public area as people stop or pass by on their way to the new music centre. In addition to the Boxwood restaurant here in Calgary, here are two other ideas as food for thought.  

The NYC Apple store entrance with
transparent glass, including the stairway,
provides one of the best examples of how a
pavilion can greatly enhance and animate a
space even when nobody is there.
The first is the entry to the Apple Store in NYC. In my eye, this is one of the most transparent, dominant, iconic and welcoming structures in North America.   Imagine something like this at the intersection of 9th and 3rd, how it would soften the entire intersection, particularly with the right lighting at night, the glass welcoming everyone to enter and experience whatever was happening inside.  

Then there is my favourite pavilion: the Digital Water Pavilion, with walls of water constructed for the Zaragoza (Spain) World Expo in 2008. Unimaginable I fear, yet one can dream how YYC could host another iconic structure that would further support recognition of this city as an emerging leader in architecture (think the Bow and the Peace Bridge). Spain has had a bit of a monopoly on grand public structures for some time now. Designed at MIT, this is one big draw for people to learn how architecture is really about experience.

The water pavilion is a fascinating structure that highlights how a building can adapt to 
the environment while providing a spectacular sensory experience that draws people. Learn 
more by watching the two video links and reading about it at 

The library designers have been asked to think more about how the space at the intersection can be designed to better activate what will soon be a major intersection for people. Keep this on your radar screen and be sure to participate by sending in your thoughts. 

While walking through City Hall Square in Philadelphia at Easter, I realized the recent retrofit of the square
shows how a historic structure can co exist with modern accessory uses all geared to bring a new level
of pedestrian activation to a rather bleak and underutilized space.  The new pavilion with lots of glass for
transparency and light, is blended in with my favourite type of fountains, that come up through the side-walk.
Another good example of how design and use come together. 
We recently hosted the Baconfest YYC film festival to great reviews in Halifax.
It was one of the first events in their new wonderful central library pictured here.
The square at the front is open, sloped with no steps and framed on the edges with
trees except in driect line to the intersection. This opens up the plaza for big events
that can spill over into the street with excellent lines of sight down the
surrounding streets. A little under used in the dead of winter, but sure to be a
popular gathering space if combined with the right event programming.

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