Canada’s first “bookless” library dedicated to Makerspaces, the Idea Exchange Old Post Office offers Cambridge residents free access to an array of spaces for learning and creativity, and a new, central hub for meeting and socializing. Anchored on the bank of the Grand River, the project reignites a landmark — a listed 1885 masonry post office that had fallen into serious disrepair — and adds a 9,000-square-foot transparent pavilion that wraps around the original building and stretches out over the water, revealing the conviviality within to passersby, enticing them in. The multidimensional architecture communicates from all sides, exuding intelligence and practicality as it deftly merges old and new. RDHA achieved sophisticated forms using customized off-the-shelf materials, maximizing utility, appearance and economy. Standard elements, such as drywall and strip lights, are treated with a degree of care that adds elegance. The Idea Exchange Old Post Office is an emblem of civic pride, of advances in communication technologies (in its transition from post office to digital hub), and of the corresponding transformation of the Cambridge library system, which in 2015 rebranded itself as the Idea Exchange.
A glass box entrance introduces an exhilarating progression up a zigzagging ramp adjacent to glass-walled views of the historic building, providing users with a close-up of the immaculately restored masonry while carrying them into the contemporary addition that cantilevers over the river wall. Scattered with table and lounge seating, this area offers breathtaking floor-to-ceiling views of the surroundings. Rhythmic window openings in the old building are now entrances into a fully-equipped restaurant and comfortable multi-purpose room, accessed by bridges that echo the bridges over the river. The openings in the floor allow natural light from skylights overhead to reach the subterranean level, and also connect the activities below to the heart of the building. There is care and efficiency in the details — for example, stone patterns on the façade of the heritage building inspired a custom ceramic frit pattern of the new glass and a perforation pattern in millwork that provides airflow to servers and heaters. Similarly, a perforated drywall dampens acoustics while softening the visual uniformity of the ceilings.
On the lower level, users can take advantage of a suite of studio spaces. There is a black box theatre, film and audio recording suites, laptop dispensing and gaming areas, and musical instruments are available for recording and performance. The second level is a children’s discovery centre, a single large bright room equipped with smart tables, robot building kits, and built-in feature walls with Lego, Lite Brite and magnets. In keeping with the mixing of old and new, a floating glass boardroom and a large exterior rooftop terrace and green roof overlook the river, and also provide up-close views of the heritage building, including its newly restored slate roof.
One of the greatest pleasures of the building is the attic—a small, all-white space that soars to a peak, and is braced by an elegant arrangement of star-shaped steel rafters, now adapted to hold strips of lighting. Between these braces the architects have created a fully-equipped maker space, outfitted with a laser cutter, 3-D printers, soldering stations, vinyl cutters, irons, sewing machines, and wood and metal workshop tools. Visitors can gaze up into the tower clock through a glass ceiling, and see its weights and gears in action. An extended glazed parapet condition at the roof level discreetly houses its mechanicals.
As they updated the building for the present, the architects were also thinking about the future. Anticipating that a river walk will eventually follow the water’s edge, they clad the soffit of the cantilever with aluminum panels, polished with a mirror-like finish, heightening the building’s relationship with its surroundings, and giving future walkers a reason to look up.
Cambridge is a small city, but it has a rich architectural and library heritage that provides context for this project. The Old Post Office is just one of a wealth of historic brick and limestone buildings lining Water Street, including a stately brick Carnegie library, one of three built in the area. These nineteenth-century libraries used classical architecture to show the value placed on knowledge and ideas. With their reimagining of the Idea Exchange Old Post Office, juxtaposing brick and slate with glass and metal, RDHA has made the same statement in an updated architectural language, and shown the value in merging the historical with the contemporary. And while the Idea Exchange Old Post Office is bookless, the Idea Exchange Queen’s Square branch, with an extensive book collection, is only a short walk away.
RDHA is a Toronto-based studio specializing in architecture for the public realm. Originally founded in 1919, the firm has a wide-ranging body of work, encompassing libraries and cultural buildings, community and recreation facilities, operations centres, transit facilities, post-secondary education facilities, secure buildings, corporate and institutional office buildings, and additions and renovations to heritage structures. In the past ten years RDHA has focused on producing intelligent, concept driven architecture of the highest caliber. The firm now feels and acts like an emerging design studio, while our 100-year legacy provides a solid backbone of technical and managerial experience. Consequently, we have re-emerged as one of Canada's most acclaimed design firms, winning more than 50 major provincial, national and international awards - most notably three Governor General's Medals and the 2018 Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) Firm of the Year Award.