ARCHITECTURE | West Coast Modernism :: Burnaby Public Library Kingsway Branch ::: 1962 – 2009






This is the library where I learned to love books.

This box of learning contributed greatly to my personal development and is responsible for my commitment to lifelong learning.

It played a central role in forming my passions, especially for architecture, design, and world cultures.

I owe a lot to this beautiful piece of West Coast Modernism. It’s no exaggeration to say that this building shaped my life.

And they’re tearing it down.




The Kingsway Branch of Burnaby Public Library opened its doors in 1962.

Its architect, Peter F. Smith, owes a lot to the groundbreaking work of Mies van der Rohe (all those I-beams, the use of glass, and the way it hovers over the ground):

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (27 March 1886 – 17 August 1969), S.R. Crown Hall, Illinois Institute of Technology, 1950-56

Photo > “Crown Hall at ITT” by pov_steve, Flickr




Kingsway Branch is a gem of a building in the classic West Coast Modern style. Employing cantilevers, expansive glazing, architectural brick, clerestory windows, and pilotis, this building — an example of the right angle in action — contains almost every design element from the lexicon of The International Style, transposed to the Canadian west coast.

Peter F. Smith also designed Vancouver Public Library’s Kitsilano Branch, which opened its doors to book lovers a year later:

Peter F. Smith, Vancouver Public Library Kitsilano Branch, 1963




Of the two, it’s no contest: Kingsway wins the architectural heritage award hands down.

Kitsilano branch is a down-home, comfy kind of space. 7252 Kingsway, on the other hand, is architectural form at its purest and at the height of its beauty. Its exterior exudes prestige and a cool minimalism befitting a Central Library.

Yet this elegant box could contain almost anything — a bank, a post office, a corporate office. This anonymity of purpose was another tenet of the Modern movement in architecture.

The Municipality of Burnaby, back in the late ’50s, had the foresight to go for Peter F. Smith’s radical design for the municipality’s new library. He delivered a beautifully proportioned, anonymous black-windowed box. It shows how Burnaby saw itself at the time: confident, progressive, dynamic, growing, and on the road to the future.




This building has excellent “bones.”

Look at how sleek it looked when it opened in 1962:

Photos > Courtesy of Burnaby Public Library




A simple box on stilts, Kingsway branch’s cantilevered reading room juts out onto an always-busy Kingsway:

This is where I read so many books and flipped through so many magazines from cultures around the world (I commend BPL for its superb magazine collection).

I was shocked when I learned that this building was slated for demolition.

Built for a pre-digital world, BPL Kingsway was unable to meet the infrastructural needs of today’s digital library. And Burnaby is intensifying and urbanizing this sector of the city. A new library, a “community commons” would anchor all of the new, high-rise development. What I knew as Middlegate as a child has morphed into highrise Highgate. Times change. Land increases in value …

Clusters of high-risers are the new “Villages.”

So BPL Kingsway Branch was replaced in November 2009 by another cool, minimalist (and beautiful) box, named in honour of the “father of Medicare” in Canada, Tommy Douglas:

Joe Fafard sculpture of Tommy Douglas at the Canadian Museum of Civilization

Photo > “old tommy” by tcp909, Flickr

When I learned that Peter F. Smith’s small masterpiece was set to be demolished, I felt compelled to grab my camera and photograph it for posterity.

It was a beautiful spring day with clear blue skies when I visited. I spent a couple of hours poking around with my camera, saying goodbye to “my library.” The building was very photogenic — Burnaby has done a great job in keeping this civic building in fine shape (on the exterior, at least; it looked a little worse-for-the-wear when I peered through the windows).

This is my small tribute to an important, indeed pivotal, part of my past. I wish the City of Burnaby would recognize the building as an important piece of our common architectural heritage and insist on its preservation.


1927 | The North Burnaby Library Association, a small lending library of 397 books, is established in a store at 4147 East Hastings Street:

Photo > City of Burnaby Archives

1941 | Construction of new building at Hastings Street and Gilmore Avenue:

Photo > City of Burnaby Archives

1954 | The Burnaby Public Library is established by a municipal bylaw

1956 | Burnaby Public Library opens in south Burnaby on 24 September, with a collection of 13,139 volumes

1957 | The North Burnaby Library Association merges with the Burnaby Public Library


1961 | The McGill Branch — Burnaby’s first permanent library building — opens

9 JUNE 1962 | The Kingsway Branch opens at 7252 Kingsway:

1970s |

1974| The Central Park Branch opens:

This 1920 photograph of the of the Central Park entrance arch and Interurban tram used to be hung at BPL’s Central Park branch

Photo > City of Burnaby Archives

1980 | The Cameron Branch opens:

1991 | The Central Park Branch closes and BPL Kingsway becomes a branch library as the Bob Prittie Metrotown Branch, designed by James Cheng, opens

The name honours Bob Prittie, a former Burnaby teacher, MP, Alderman, Mayor and Library Board member:

2001 |New McGill Branch, also designed by James Cheng, opens:

JUNE 2008 | Construction begins on new Kingsway branch

18 SEPTEMBER 2009 | Farewell party at old Kingsway Branch

16 NOVEMBER 2009 | Tommy Douglas Branch, designed by Diamond+Schmitt/CEI Architecture, Planning, and Interiors, opens

28 NOVEMBER 2009 | Grand opening, Tommy Douglas Library:

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