It’s hard to pinpoint what I saw first as we approached the new Calgary Central Library in Alberta, Canada. Was it the building’s light fracturing hexagonal facade? The Light Rail Transit line disappearing into its heart? Or was it the two drinking bird motion-sculptures near the main entrance?
(Yes, a drinking bird—as in, that famous toy bird you may have sitting on your office desk right now, whose head bobs up and down in perpetual motion.)
This 240,000 square foot ($245 million CDN) building designed to LEED Gold standard by architectural firms Snøhetta and DIALOG, is a beautiful space designed to bring Alberta’s multicultural and multigenerational diversity together in one place. This is the latest selection for our monthly series, The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries.
While visiting Calgary many things stood out to me. Near the top of that list is that it is a clean city—a very clean city—which is partially why despite the cold it is considered the world's fifth most liveable city. Another is that it is a city reflecting inward on itself, by which I mean most of its newest construction—like Bow Tower or Jamieson Place—are glass icons. That glass is beautiful and it makes sense—with over 2,400 hours of sunshine annually, Calgary is one of Canada’s sunniest cities.
So maybe I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was when I first laid eyes on Calgary’s Central Library, but even in this brilliant context, everything about the library told me it’s different. From its curved, ship-like form, to its lively glass hexagonal facings reminiscent of a mosaic—the library plays with light like no other structure in the city. That modular facade scatters the sunlight as you move towards it, bending along the surface and reflecting back the blues of the sky.
If you like shiny things—and I tend to—then you’ll be drawn to it like a moth to a flame.
Additionally, there are gaps included in the facade—full hexagonal facings mixed with partial pieces create openings that provide a window into the heart of the library at night, when the light reverses course, from flowing into the building to having it become a glowing and inviting source.
Eager to get inside, I bounced up its sloping terraced steps to the main entrance, only to be stopped again by the sight of a stunning and massive wood-paneled archway, made of western red wood cedar from nearby British Columbia. The curved arch, my hosts tell me, is designed to reflect a local natural cloud phenomenon called a Chinook Arch, a unique weather pattern that only appears in a few areas across the globe, which in this case is the slopes of the Rocky Mountains from Montana to Alberta. The Chinook Arch is a rising “sharp western” wind that flows over a long mountainous barrier, dropping on the lee side of the range, forming a wide, half circle arc that can be seen for hundreds of miles. “Chinook” is a native word for “snow eater,” due to its warm gusting winds, which can reach over 60 MPH.
The archway not only connects the building to the terrain and weather of the region, it also literally connects Calgary in all directions.
According to Craig Dykers, a principal architect and founding partner with Snøhetta, this is partly possible because of a unique architectural challenge: the train had to stay.
“The limitation of having a train run through the site opened many doors to unusual geometry,” Dykers tells me, “we had to follow the train line below us.”
The Light Rail Train divided the city, cutting off the downtown and the currently growing and trendy East Village neighborhood, where the library now sits. To preserve the rail line that runs in a half-circle under the library, architects lifted the library upward, which then created an opportunity for a thoroughfare uniting both parts of the city.
Once I was finally on the inside—there it was again: the large curves and arcs. The building is curved. The arch is curved. On the inside, the stairways and floors ebb and flow in curves. This is a building that abhors straight lines. Bright white floors and walls lined with soft wood panels twist upward toward The Oculus, a massive eye-shaped skylight that floods each floor with light.
“As we learned more about First Nations culture,” Dykers tells me, “we saw similar shapes in their art and the way they express the spaces they build.”
“The interior is somewhat like a great lodge,” he adds, “like the indigenous longhouse structures found in the region and toward the West Coast. The form lifts upward and leads your eye toward the light. These characteristics are also found in historical building traditions in the west, as we might find in buildings like the Pantheon.”
According to Dykers, the modern library is one that should not only reflect the region—like the Chinook Arch or the great lodge—it should be a space designed to provide an opportunity for people to meet.
“Many contemporary libraries were built on the models that were developed either in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance,” says Dykers. “Libraries go back 2000 years or more to the ancients in the Mediterranean—the Greeks and the Romans,” and Greek libraries, he notes, “were really very lively places—places where people came to talk and discuss. They even had food in them.”
And this is the library that Calgary now has.
On the inside, it is clear that this—with its street-level cafe, interior coffee bar, and 2,400 square foot performance hall—is a place for activity, conversing, and creating. Each floor of the library brings out that older model in its own way.
The Jocelyn Louise Anderson Children’s Library on floor 1M, for example, is a 12,200 square foot room with beautiful high ceilings and places for children to play, climb, and blow off energy before collapsing to read a book or have one read to them. I stumbled over the many mounds of shoes discarded by kids everywhere.
Or level three, a wide-open space provides the Teen Centre, where I saw high schoolers reading, playing board games, and gaming on large screens. This floor is home to a lot of tech, housing video conferencing facilities, audio and video production studios, and even a learning center to help immigrants get settled and acclimate.
But if you’re the kind of person who just needs some calm reading space, then never fear—there’s room for you as well. As you make your way upward in the library it gets quieter.
On the fourth floor, for example, the TD Great Reading Room is an oval space with wrap-around wood-paneling, and oak tables for reading from the library’s 450,000 volumes in their collection. It is a quiet and warm room where the glow of the skylight is diffused through wood panels. This floor houses the Indigenous Languages Resource Centre and The Elder's Guidance Circle, where you can speak to Indigenous Elders or come to hear stories and experience ceremonies.
The floor is an interesting architectural meeting point, where both sides of the building’s curvature connect at what some refer to as a “ship’s prow.” From this vantage point, you can overlook the train as it passes below. This might have been my favorite space. The orb-like ceiling lights hovered like stars and the high floor to ceiling windows lets the daylight stream through the hexagonal panels and engulf you. Paralleling the orbs above, the floor itself is divided into round carpeted sections where three chairs face a small table, making it easy to break-up this larger space up into small groups.
But more than the rooms, it seemed like every corner and wall held some form of artistic message.
Several Indigenous Placemaking installations mark the region’s original connection to First Nations—the library sits on Treaty 7 First Nations’ territory. Among the installations, for example are Roland Rollinmud’s colorful painting “Survival Harvest (Past),” found on the Welcome Wall of Level 1, which depicts the history of First Nations in Canada as stewards of the land. On floor 1M, is Lionel Peyachew’s installation of “Education is the New Buffalo”—a steel North American Bison, which is constructed out of “language text from local Indigenous groups.” The point: buffalo was once necessary for survival, but today education now has that role.
On level three, a wall features Christian Moeller’s mosaic piece made of colorful book spines that, when you step back, reveal a goldfish eye watching you. Moeller is also behind the two drinking bird pieces, known as TRIO—the third was yet to be installed.
It is easy to understand why this is seen as the largest cultural project in Calgary since the 1988 Olympics.
All of this diversity brought me back to the library’s shining mosaic outside. “Canada is a mosaic, not a melting pot,” is the phrase that often distinguishes the cultural aspirations of Canada and the United States. It is that dream of a mosaic that seemed like a beautiful metaphor for Calgary’s Library.
Dykers tells me that the idea of “Canada is a mosaic” was not on their minds when they designed the facade. It is intended, he says, to be playful and to distinguish the building from everything else around it.
“We’re happy when people have even their own associations that we didn’t intend,” Dykers tells me, “it means that people are connecting to it and in different ways.” And it is true, other people see snowflakes in the facade or books.
Saying goodbye to Calgary Central Library and my drinking bird friends, it’s clear to me that this light infused, curve obsessed hub is designed to be an open, beautiful space for everyone.
And perhaps nothing says that more when First Nations representatives came to consecrate the library, Dykers tells me, they gave him what he felt was “one of the highest compliments,” saying that the library “feels at home in its place.”