Architecture: Surrey’s Public Library

December 1, 2011

This has been an exciting year for Canadian nerds. First Margaret Atwood rallied her Twitter troops in defence of Toronto’s beleaguered library system (which was “under threat of privatization”). Then Maclean’s magazine explained that, actually, libraries across the country are stronger than ever. Libraries—libraries—have become front-page news. If there’s some confusion as to whether those institutions are coming or going, it’s because they’re actually doing both. And nowhere is that profound transformation more evident than in the rule-breaking City Centre Library that opened this fall in the heart of Surrey.

No longer the awkward half-sibling of Vancouver, Surrey is partway through a $2.8 billion set of developments that will give it, among other things, a real civic heart. The $36-million, 75,000-square-foot library, designed by Vancouver’s greatest firm, Bing Thom Architects, will be flanked in 2013 by a City Hall that Vancouver will envy (designed by powerhouse Kasian-Moriyama Architects) and a plaza capable of accommodating 5,000 people.

As Surrey re-imagines itself into the region’s next metropolitan centre, the construction of a major library speaks to the continuing importance of a seemingly antique institution. Video outlets and music stores have all but gone extinct as cloud technology renders them superfluous. Why, then, do libraries persist? (Surrey’s new building is only one of several major new library projects across the country.)

The answer lies in the details of Thom’s design. On entering the building—“a modern cathedral,” he says—visitors are greeted not by stacks of books but by a vast and cavernous central atrium, which is capped by a grand skylight. All is white and fluid, with each floor of the library turning, in a gracious spiral, up to the next. A “low” area does house actual books, but the point of this building is its “high” spaces, open-air gathering places that serve as the kind of melting pot that most community centres (with their wretched aesthetics) so often fail to become.

Inside City Centre Library, food and drink is openly consumed—in fact, the library has its own café. Teen-only areas are equipped with hammocks. Children bounce on rubber furniture, and new immigrants get help acclimatizing. You can read there if you like, but if every book were removed from this library’s stacks, it would still be a thrumming, crucial public space. Five years from now, the world’s library will be a click away on your iPad4. The point of going to a building like this won’t be to access hard-copy literature. It will be casual, noncommercial connections with fellow citizens—a beating heart in a city of strangers.

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