Plans for a new lending library in Calgary, Canada, might just make hanging out at the public library cool. Designed by Snøhetta, an architecture firm whose very first commission was a library, this 240,000-square-foot center will be more than just a repository for plastic-protected books. Twice as large as Calgary’s existing public library, it’s designed to be both a circulating public library and a community gathering space, a combination bookstore/computer lab/cafe/event space/social hub that provides a pathway between two disconnected neighborhoods.
And it has plans to shed the ugly theft detectors that frame most public libraries’ exits. In fact, there may not even be receptions desks, just iPad support stations. The whole setup kind of sounds like an Apple store–sleek, seamless, lots of glass. “It’s not about security gates that you’re walking through,” Snøhetta project designer Vanessa Kassabian says in an interview. “People will be kind of moving around and informally helping people,” although the firm is still working out the details with the library and a security consultant. “They’re talking about even having uniforms for the staff as well.”
The library’s entire design is about ease of access. Envisioned as a connector between Calgary’s newly revitalized, walkable East Village and other parts of downtown, the structure, which incorporates a passageway over the above-ground light rail tracks that bisect the site, provides a physical and visual connection between two neighborhoods (where an avenue currently just dead-ends). The library is built upon and shaped by the train, which emerges from a tunnel at one side of the site and runs above ground at the library’s northern end.
“Other than the constraint of the LRT [Calgary’s public transit], the site is an ideal location,” Kassabian says. But she calls the complexity of building around a train (which stops a few steps away from the library) an “opportunity” that helped conceptualize the library’s circulation. An enclosure is built around the train, and a terraced entryway above draws visitors to the main entrance on the second floor, where a main atrium fills the core of the boat-shaped building, creating sight lines between the different floors of the library, which house different functions like a cafe, a children’s zone, a learning lab, training rooms, study areas, and administrative offices. Below the main entry floor is an auditorium and event space.
“You can look up and see another space–it draws you through the building,” Kassabian explains. “It’s about using the whole building and being able to explore and see new things.”
Though digital technology hasn’t killed the physical book (yet), libraries are no longer just about circulating books. As a result, library design has to become more people-centric. Many people might have an easier time procuring a book instantly via Kindle, or ordering it online. The great libraries of the future will be about creating appealing, comfortable gathering spaces where people want to hang out, rather than being the place you go to hastily grab the musty tome you couldn’t find on Amazon and flee. And when it comes to making things (and places) cool, Apple’s isn’t the worst model to follow.