A Three-Peaked Hat
The first thing that comes to mind when we think of Canada is Nature with a capital “N”. We identify this enormous country with vast stretches of natural vegetation, there since time began, cyclical uncontaminated beauty in accordance with the harmonious rhythms born of a natural equilibrium.
Patkau Architects have once again put to the test their ability to create new relationships between a built fabric and what remains of this primordial natural environment lying dormant and unrecognized in complex urban areas largely devoid of any human scale.
The location this time is Edmonton, capital of the province of Alberta, a city of over one million inhabitants distributed along the North Saskatchewan River. Typical of watercourses meandering across extensive low lands, North Saskatchewan describes enormous loops as it collects the waters of myriad small tributaries, which over the centuries eroded the fertile soil, creating short shallow rocky ravines, typical of a riparian prairie ecosystem. Posing a hindrance to urban growth and speculation, however, these geomorphological formations were often eliminated, covered over or diverted through pipes or, when this was too costly or laborious, simply cut off from their upstream water source. The result was a series of orphaned ravines that became anomalous tracts within the rigidly square grids characteristic of the forward march of North American cities. The last 30 years have, however, seen a movement to protect surviving orphaned ravines. One example is the green area abutting the east side of the new Capilano Library. The building stands as a shield between an orderly but nondescript array of uninteresting houses and the orphaned ravine hidden within dense foliage, testimony to a time when this area was still wild and untamed. Both a barrier but also an osmotic membrane, this public service facility invites visitors to enter, meditate and also become part of Nature.
Opened in 2018, the plan of the public service Capilano Library runs longitudinally on a north-south axis under a single 77 m stretch of roof designed as a sort of three-pointed hat, each peak signaling one of the three volumes - and functions - beneath.
The main entrance lies to the north while the long side of the library running parallel to an adjacent residential street presents as a long black wall. The volume immediately behind contains the library’s fixed rooms (workroom, washroom, storage, etc). Parallel to this section is a second middle zone housing the library shelves where books are freely available to visitors. Parallel to this middle space is the third east-facing volume marked out by a 55-m long crystal glass curtain wall overlooking the wooded ravine. All three environments are naturally lit by clerestories on the west face of each roof peak.
On the interior, the three distinct zones of the library blend into one single unit thanks to the use throughout of timber in the form of folded wood ceiling slats that follow the peaking shape of the roof. The effect is one of restful simplicity and continuity, heightened by the changing light as the day proceeds.
From the outside, the huge imposing roof, tall metal-clad profiles on the short sides, and metal band running the full length of the highest roof peak form a striking piece of architecture in its setting. Once inside, however, the building’s weighty outer presence disappears, becoming a single airy environment imbued with the warm natural color of the timber slats. Patkau Architects have created a masterful example of welcoming light-filled spaces. The effect is almost magical - achieved by concealing inside the walls much of the building’s steel frame: a series of portals made up of large beams and slender, minimum-section columns sunk into the reinforced concrete foundations, and secured by a system of wind-bracing stays. The frame is further concealed by regulation insulating cladding while the continuous folded wood slatting completes the impression of a single uninterrupted unit. The blend of architectural design and structural excellence could almost be called a brilliant “conjuring” trick.
Shifting attention away from the static needs of a building to create architecture is no mean feat, especially when dealing with apparently banal volumes. Standing as an interconnection between human knowledge and Nature, the Capilano Library is a catalyst able to spark city-scale change. In fact, the project won both the 2020 Prairie Wood Design and 2019 Wood Design Merit awards, and was certified LEED Silver in March 2020.