ARCHITECTURE | Burnaby Public Library Tommy Douglas Branch :: First Impressions

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: It’s a deceptive neo-Modernist box. From the exterior, one expects to explore a two-storey library. That’s an illusion.

Photo > Burnaby Public Library

The interior of BPL’s Tommy Douglas Branch is one massive double-height reading room. This is a bright and airy white space, with just one bold splash of colour — an intense and beautiful shade of green — on the north wall above the service desk:

It’s a cool, smooth pavilion for reading.

And as the master of the pavilion, Mies van der Rohe (above) insisted, God is in the details. Fortunately, the combined efforts of Toronto’s Diamond+Schmitt and Vancouver’s CEI Architects have produced some amazing custom features for BPL.

The concrete detailing and workmanship, in particular, require mentioning: it is exquisite with a Japanese attention-to-detail quality rarely seen in Canada:




The now abandoned Kingsway Branch (below) is a significant reminder of how, in the middle of the last century, Vancouver stood in the vanguard of the new wave in architecture.

This building is an exemplar of what was cool back in the early ‘60s. Too bad that it’s slated for demolition; that seems so shortsighted to me.

When it was built, Kingsway played the role of Burnaby’s Central Library; as such, it had an extensive print collection and a fantastic assortment of multilingual periodicals.

The new branch, in comparison, definitely feels like a branch library, with a small, selectively edited assortment of books (and a still-great magazine collection).

This is a networked space for the digital age. What Tommy Douglas loses in quantities of books, it gains in programming rooms (additional ‘boxes” to the east of the reading room) used for ESL instruction and other community needs, a computer lab, a sweet little area for children, and a definite “community commons” vibe. This is what the library of today looks like.

Tommy D has quickly assumed its role as the hub of choice for the citizens of Highgate, a newly urbanizing sector in southeast Burnaby that, in less pretentious times, was known as Middlegate (click on map, below):

Like its doomed predecessor across the street, the new library makes extensive use of clerestory lighting:

Along the west elevation at Tommy Douglas, psychedelic-coloured glass fins stand in vertical contrast, a very nice touch:

At night, this library sparkles. It’s a stunning addition to Kingsway.

My one concern about the building is the decision to use corrugated metal (zinc in this case) as the main pavilion’s cladding material. Those five elegantly thin columns holding up the portico along Kingsway demand a more sympathetic and regal material.

What would Mies have used?

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (March 27, 1886 – August 17, 1969): The Barcelona Pavilion, 1929. Constructed as the German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, it was demolished the following year and reconstructed in 1986. This is the Modern Movement’s Parthenon, its high temple of style.

Photo > Hans Peter Schaeferm Wikimedia Commons


Glass, steel and four different kinds of marble (Roman travertine, green Alpine marble, ancient green marble from Greece and golden onyx from the Atlas Mountains) were used for the reconstruction, all of the same characteristics and provenance as the ones originally employed by Mies in 1929.

Mies van der Rohe’s originality in the use of materials lay not so much in novelty as in the ideal of modernity they expressed through the rigour of their geometry, the precision of the pieces and the clarity of their assembly.

The Fundació Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona




The new building was called the Edmonds Library whilst it was under construction, and the Edmondslib’s Weblog did a terrific job of documenting the evolution of the building. It has some great historical photos of Kingsway Branch, floor plans of the new library, information about the artwork, the building’s environmental footprint, etc. Check it out:

BPL Tommy D is a suburban branch library with a pronounced urban vibe. Compare it with the central library that the same team of architects designed for North Vancouver City (2008), a beautiful addition to the urbanization of the North Shore:

And further out in the ‘burbs, Surrey (a city seemingly desperate to urbanize) is building what appears to be a mother ship of a library to anchor its new “downtown” at Surrey Central:

Now, this is an amazing building — Oscar Niemeyer meets Star Trek (original version). Bing Thom (below) is on a roll at this point in his career; he just keeps getting better and better. Vancouver is lucky to have him as the heir apparent to the late, great, Arthur Charles Erickson.

Municipalities throughout Metro Vancouver have discovered the magic of library as place. New libraries designed by top-drawer architects have sprouted up throughout Vancouver and its environs for about the past decade or so, acting as anchors for the revitalization (and growth of) our neighbourhoods.

Tommy Douglas Branch is the latest in this line of new, improved libraries of the future. The architects and staff at BPL are to be commended for what they’ve accomplished.

The library lovers of the Lower Mainland have never had it so good. The death of the library? Nah. This is the future:

CLIENT: The City of Burnaby
ARCHITECT TEAM: Diamond and Schmitt Architects: A.J. Diamond, Paul Szaszkiewicz, Breck Macfarlane, Derek Newby, Priyanka Bista, Erin Corcoran, James Tenyenhuis, Bruce Han, Mike Votruba. CEI Architecture Planning Interiors: John Scott, Sid Johnson, Derek Newby, Rachel Sun
STRUCTURAL: Bush Bohlman and Partners (Clint Low, Brett Haliki, Michael Sullivan)
MECHANICAL: Cobalt Engineering (Albert Bicol, Susan Hayes, Ken Newbert, John May)
ELECTRICAL: MCW Consultants Ltd. (Greg Lord, Andrew Burt)
LANDSCAPE: Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg (Christopher Phillips, Joeseph Fry, Hanako Amaya, Ross Dixon, Andrew Robertson)
INTERIORS: CEI Architecture Planning Interiors (Heidi Matthews, Asar Aminpour, Isabella Pudlak). Diamond And Schmitt Architects (Breck MacFarlane)
CONTRACTOR: Dominion Fairmile Construction
LIFE/SAFETY: GHL Consultants Ltd.
LEED: Recollective
Civil Hunter Laird Engineering Ltd.
Water Feature Vince Helton & Associates
GEOTECHNICAL: Trow Associates
AREA: 1625 m2
COMPLETION: November 2009

SOURCE: Canadian Architect

TOMMY DOUGLAS : The Greatest of Them All

In November 2004, Canadians voted Tommy Douglas the Greatest Canadian of all time following a nationwide contest. Over 1.2 million votes were cast in a frenzy of voting that took place over six weeks as each of 10 advocates made their case for the Top 10 nominees in special feature programs on CBC Television. After a Final Showdown and one last chance to vote, the results were revealed on 29 November 2004 by hosts Wendy Mesley and Shaun Majumder.

CBC: The Greatest Canadian

Canadian Architect | Call of the Wild by Adele Weder

The Walrus | Red Tape: For Diamond+Schmitt, winning an international competition to design a cultural centre in St. Petersburg was a blessing and a curse by Don Gillmor

Photo > Diamond+Schmitt Architects/Cicada Design

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