Moderators: Liv Valmestad and Professor Eduard Epp
Speakers: Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, Roger Hughes, Trevor Boddy
Recorder: Tora Williamsen-Berry
Liv Valmestad introduced the first speaker, and the topic of the session: Vancouver’s public libraries. When the city of Vancouver erected the new library, it was a stylistic break from the old library. The focus of the new library is that of the library as a public spectacle and gathering space. A panel of three different speakers addressed the role of the library in the 21st century, and how that is reflected in newly constructed library architecture.
The first speaker was Dr. Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, Professor of Fine Art, University of British Columbia. Professor Windsor-Liscombe discussed the differences between the old and new Vancouver public libraries, and discussed how those differences are the result of cultural change, involving the relationship of the citizen to architectural space. Both libraries were designed for the public act of reading. The new library brings up complex questions regarding what is suitable to a public building in post-imperialist, post- war, multicultural Canada.
Professor Windsor-Liscombe displayed images of the initial post war schemes for the 1950’s library. The building was located in the financial district, and was influenced by the buildings around it. The 1950’s library was a modernist assault on British-Canadian style; an egalitarian rejection of the social divisiveness of old libraries. The 1950’s library was designed as a center of democracy and a university for the people. The use of glass in the 1950’s library dispelled control, and implied that the librarian was there to facilitate, versus the old-fashioned library, where design implied that the librarian was there to dominate. The ideas of Le Corbusier and other modernist architects were evident in the models for the 1950’s library. In the interior of the 1950’s library, there was a sense of rational, social mobility. Literature of the period contained pictures of diverse populations using the library, and abstract art. Book-reading was regarded as a liberalizing, democratizing force.
Professor Windsor-Liscombe then discussed the new library, and how, over the last forty years, we have seen the erosion of comprehensive planning, the emasculation of the architectural profession, the corporate appropriation of public space, and the commercialization of public space. In short, the failure of the democratic approach demonstrated by the 1950’s library. The 1993 competition which resulted in the new Vancouver Public Library designed by Moshe Safdie was, among other things, about political expediency. Professor Windsor-Liscombe stated that the comparison of the new public library to the coliseum in Rome is incorrect; and that the idea that this is a post-modern building is nonsense. He stated that the new public library is modern – it is both functional and structural. The new public library demonstrates the modern ethos – the relationship between structure and form. What is different about the new library is that it looks towards the classic past for inspiration. In the new library, there is a return to the monumental for the dignity of reading – similar to the Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve by Labrouste. There is a sense of display, invitation and intrigue. You enter through a bridge – a transition where the individual becomes prepared to receive understanding – the treasure of culture. Safdie has come to grips with the idea of the popular raised to a higher level. The new library is the reconstitution of the eastern Mediterranean as the birthplace of literacy and knowledge. The new library is inclusionary, not exclusionary.
The second speaker was Roger Hughes, architect, Roger-Hughes Partners Architects, Vancouver. He won awards for his design of the new Renfrew branch public library. He discussed this building in terms of its context, location, and function. Renfrew is located on the east side of Vancouver, and the public library is part of a community center area. The library measures approximately 16,000 square feet. The site was given to the library by the parks board. There was a great deal of negotiation necessary to achieve what the different client groups involved in the library wanted. The client groups were the Parks Board, the Library, and the community. Achieving political consensus regarding the site was difficult. Fortunately, a program with the functional areas defined was already in existence. The parks board wanted to bury the library and remove any visible parking – they wanted a highly visible building that wasn’t visible, and a building that was connected with nature. They also wanted the library to be part of the nearby community center. The plan that was devised for the library had a triangular shape with a steep roof, and two stories, with a parking lot underneath the main building. The entrance is bright and welcoming, as it was important that the building be accessible and symbolize its accessibility by its design. The building was designed to be integrated with nature by placement of vines on the lower level parking garage wall, and a roof with water on the top. Due to the location of the parking on the lower level, where the community center is located, there is now a more meaningful use of the community center. Recessed windows in the library help to keep light away from the books. The areas where the librarians work is visible and open to the public. Various rooms are in the library including a children’s room and a multipurpose room. Entrances to the library are marked in brick, and are highly visible and welcoming. The building is designed as a green building – making use of resources in a careful way. The library was designed in such a way as to meet the needs of its site and clients. Everything about it is the result of the site and program. Increased use of the library as a public meeting area and gathering space has occurred. People feel confident using the library and it adds to the community.
The third, and last, speaker was the architectural critic and independent scholar, Mr. Trevor Boddy. The subject of his paper was library architecture today, particularly in the context of changes in technology and society. He stated that the library in Canada is frequently a civic building which integrates the functions of library, cultural, and governmental institutions – a type of library square. Mr. Boddy contended that Canada is a postmodern nation par excellence – two reflections of that being the arrival of cable television thirty years ago, and the early arrival of branch plants. The Canadian sense of multiculturalism also contributes to its status as a postmodern nation. Mr. Boddy then discussed a conversation he had with an acquaintance who stated he was going downtown to the “New Library”. Mr. Boddy assumed that he meant that he was going to the new Vancouver Public Library by Moshe Safdie, but in fact, he actually meant the Virgin Mega Store (a large music cd-rom, and video retail store). This, he contended, was the “new library”. Some facts to consider in support of this statement: the Vancouver Public Library has 2.1 million objects, equivalent to 5.6 x 10 13 bytes of information; the Virgin Mega Store has 180,000 objects, equivalent, however, to 7.9 x 1014 bytes, including audiovisual, media, and music. Mr. Boddy contended that the Virgin Mega Store is the new library. Mr. Boddy then stated that library architecture is best appreciated in a state of relaxation. He contended that the Vancouver Public Library is disappointing in this aspect. Its emphasis on the library as a place of public spectacle detracts from the reader who should be able to relax and enjoy the pursuit of knowledge in private. Mr. Boddy, unlike Professor Windsor-Liscombe, feels that the Vancouver public library is a postmodernist building. Postmodernism, he stated, however, is a subset of modernism in many ways.
A lively discussion session with questions and answers followed the