The Library as Third Place

Morten Schmidt spoke at the Museum of History this week. Schmidt is a partner at the renowned Danish architecture firm, Schmidt Hammer Lassen (SHL), best known for their libraries. For context, they have proposed a new central library for Ottawa, recently, together with Toronto’s KPMB architects.

Full disclosure, my employer, the NCC, put on the event together with Carleton’s Azrieli School for Architecture and Urbanism, for whom I recently taught an urbanism studio.

Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s library in Halifax recently won a Governor General’s award here in Canada,  and they’ve been recognized for their work all over the world. They recently won library commissions in Christchurch, New Zealand, and in Shanghai, China, and have built more than 50 libraries worldwide.
The NCC’s Dr. Kristmanson and Andy Fillmore, MP for Halifax, who is also a planner and urban designer, introduced the speaker. The Hon. Mr. Fillmore talked about his experiences and challenges getting Halifax’s stunning new library built. The entire downtown was rezoned by 2012, to try to spur growth, setting the stage for the new central library.

Schmidt’s focus is what he calls ‘democratic architecture’; one that invites the entire public to enjoy it, and is designed using a thorough consultative process. He shared the firm’s work including several libraries and a few other cultural buildings.

Today, he says, the libraries play the role of a ‘third place’, where people gather; between work and home. In our digital society, human minds are changing; based on using phones all the time to look things up and navigate though cities, we don’t use our memories as much. But despite changes in technology, the need for libraries continues. Our access to information is also today increasingly being controlled by companies like Google and Amazon. The public library should be an answer to this issue.

Copenhagen’s Royal Library, for example, designed by SHL, holds the nation’s archives, but is also designed as a social place, and is completely open to the public. This library is both a civic and cultural centre.

The most important function of the library today is to allow people to reinterpret the world around them. Besides museums, libraries are among very few truly public spaces today. Involvement and empowerment of individuals and communities is key to today’s library.

In Halifax, the public was intimately involved in the design process, over a period of six months. In consultation with the local kids, who were “Harry Potter mad” what the designers heard over and over was that it should be like Hogwarts. The designers decided to watch the movie again, and the moving stairs in the movie became a source of inspiration. Library attendance has been much higher than expected in Halifax, and the library is considered highly successful.

In Aarhus, SHL created a new library on the waterfront, the result of a design competition. The library doubles as a transit hub, with a light rail station and automated parking garage in the building. Kid friendly play structures surround the library. Inside, public performance spaces and contemplative quiet places abound.

In Shanghai, Schmidt is designing a very large new library with massive interior public spaces.

SHL broke ground on a library for Christchurch New Zealand recently. A lot of buildings are missing in that city today, because of the recent devastation by an earthquake. The library will be the first major public building. Maori traditions are being incorporated as a key component of the project.
The Hon. Andy Fillmore and Mr. Schmidt sat down after the lecture to speak more informally about the work, and take audience questions.

As an architect and urban designer myself, I find Schmidt’s work inspiring. Having received a presentation like this I’m struck that North American public buildings have a long way to go to be more ‘democratic’ and welcoming to the public, but also more aesthetically successful. 

Cross Laminated Timber and ‘the Timber Age’

Cross laminated timber, for some reason, has always been the most popular topic on this blog. The most read article on the blog in 2016 (and ditto for every other year I’ve been writing) was about this unique building material that seems to be challenging pre-existing notions about what can be built with wood. 

Some readers are apparently well versed and seem to be seeking out information about this product, but for those who aren’t as familiar, cross laminated timber is a wood product that is engineered to create panels that are much thicker and stronger than typical ply wood. These panels can be insulated and use to build walls and even structural elements in buildings. Wood in general is considered an excellent building material from a sustainability point of view because of its low embodied energy, renewability, and the fact that forests absorb carbon. 

So what’s being built these days, using cross laminated timber? The answer is all kinds of buildings including some of the greenest buildings being built today. Some examples can be found here, in this Dezeen article about the ‘age of timber’.

What Makes A Good Rink?

I find myself at a lot of community sports facilities. I’m a coach for my daughter’s ringette team and I see the insides and outsides of a lot of Ottawa and Gatineau’s rinks, arenas, and sports complexes. We travel to tournaments outside Ottawa too, usually in suburbs of Montreal. I grew up playing hockey recreationally in a small Alberta town where the outdoor rink was a hub of community life in winter

In parts of North America that experience winter, rinks seem to fall into a few main categories: either they’re outdoor rinks that are temporary and get taken down every summer, or they’re extremely basic buildings often built with a lot of concrete block and very few windows and dating to the 60’s, or third, they’re very large and recently built ‘sheds’, usually in suburban locations, with a lot of nice finishes on the inside and built in the last 10 years. 

As an architect I don’t find the latter two types very satisfying. I don’t think that anyone that goes to the 1960’s era rinks actually enjoys them; they’re  mostly very cold and windowless. Outdoor rinks definitely have their place and it’s hard to argue with these, although even in a very wintry place like Ottawa, they don’t seem to have very long operating seasons. 

It’s surprising that a culture like ours that values ice sports so much doesn’t seem to see fit to make sure our rinks reflect the importance we ascribe to the sports that are played within them. Even the newer rinks don’t really have anything ‘civic’ about the way they’re designed and built. They’re nice to be in, but from the outside they’re pretty banal. 

The rink at Toronto’s Greenwood Park. Photo from cityrinks.ca

Given all of this I was really pleased this weekend when we drove past this rink at Toronto’s Greenwood Park. It’s apparently three years old and really is a thing of beauty, and has a nice ‘pavillion’ feel to it. One of the most remarkable things about it is the amount of glass the architects used. The experience of skating at this rink is one of being part of what’s happening in the park, and those who are outside the building can clearly see there’s activity on the inside. I’m told that the ice surface is chilled, and I’m not sure if the rink is operated year-round but it seems like it could be. I wish more communities in Canada and the US would build rinks like this, or at least apply this type of civic minded, community oriented thinking to the design of ice rinks and arenas. Thanks to Greenwood Park and that community for showing us what good architecture for recreation looks like. A real civics lesson.

2016 At www.see-change.net

2016 was a pretty unique year, for me personally, professionally, and for this blog. 

On a personal level, I had some health issues that I’d never had to deal with before, not least of which was a car accident. A Toronto driver t-boned us on Dufferin Street in the spring and I’ve been dealing with the impacts ever since. On the more positive side it was a year filled with fun with my family including a trip to Hawaii that I won’t forget any time soon. We all learned to surf … it doesn’t get better than that. 

On a professional level, I had the opportunity to teach a third year urban design studio at Carleton this fall. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and I was very flattered they asked me to do it. I’m just finishing up grading now, and I have to say it was a highly rewarding experience.

Here at the blog, I managed to keep the posts going, but maybe with a little less frequency because of the other things I was dealing with and had taken on. Readership was down just slightly from 2015, but higher than 2014, with about 2,000 views so I can’t complain too much. We’re very close to having 10,000 views for the blog overall, and it’s a milestone I’m pretty excited to pass. In 2016 the most popular posts were about cross laminated timber and EHDD Architecture’s 25 Year award from the AIA for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Top referrers were Facebook and Twitter, and most readers came from the US and Canada. 

In 2016 I tried to focus more on urbanism in my posts, rather than strictly architecture and sustainability. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the blog this year, and will continue to check in on it. 

Throwing Light (Not Shade) In Canada’s Capital

Thanks to Francis Pearce and Illumination Magazine for their piece on the NCC’s Capital Illumination Plan in the ‘Sketchbook’ section of their magazine. It was my first time being interviewed for an in-print publication, and Mr. Pearce took the best parts of what was said and basically made me sound much better than what I recall. Read it for yourself here

Is Architecture A Good Profession?

A couple of Architecture students asked me what I thought about their career choice the other day. These are third and fourth year undergraduate students facing a few more years of school minimum, followed by probably three or four years of internship to complete their licensure so they can become bona fide architects. I understand the dilemma. 
I told them I had considered other professions too, during school, like they are. I looked into medicine, law, journalism, and design of various types. I don’t know that any of these professions, except maybe medicine, have it better, on average, than architects do, though. 

On the other hand, Architecture is a very tough profession where at times it seems the odds are stacked against you. The bar to admission to the profession is high, the hours are long, and the pay is unexceptional. Add to this the fact that almost every architect I know has a story about being buffeted by one or multiple recessions where they lost their job and most of their colleagues did too, and you have what looks like a pretty difficult profession. 

I personally can’t complain, though. I have worked at top design firms in both the US and Canada and have managed to land a job as an architect working for the federal government in Canada. The job pays better than average for my level of experience, and the hours and benefits are good too. The best part about my job (and most of the architectural profession) is the many and varied challenges that are always popping up. It really is an exciting and challenging profession and it seems there is always an opportunity to learn something. 

So, yes I think Architecture is a good career choice. You have to know yourself and make sure you find a place to do what you do best, and that’s not the easiest thing. It can be a really rewarding profession, if you can find just the right venue to practice it. 

I’d love to hear your comments on this. 

How Tall is Too Tall?

Building height is something that can be quite controversial when a developer is proposing to build in an existing neighbourhood. I’ve been exploring this issue with my third year urbanism students at Carleton University this fall. 

Ottawa is not known as being a city of tall buildings and part of this is is a result of the NCC’s views protection policy that has been adopted into City of Ottawa zoning. I work with this policy fairly often as part of my role in federal approvals at the NCC.

At Carleton the issue has come up because we’re looking at the existing Civic Hospital site as a mixed use development. The premise is that the hospital’s operations have begun at Tunney’s Pasture ten years from now. 

We had a few community stakeholders in to look at the students’ work recently and I asked them about height. I thought their answers were quite good. The advice we received is basically to think about the context. Building something tall next to low scale residential buildings isn’t great. Draw a 45 degree line from the lowest building and try to fit taller ones under that line. 

I’m curious to hear other reader’s thoughts on this topic.

Are Coach Houses & Basement Apartments A Good Idea?

The City of Ottawa and other municipalities are exploring the idea of allowing small dwellings to be built on laneways and alleys, and the idea of secondary dwellings on existing properties in general. 

This trend raises a lot of interesting questions about densification and what makes a good place to live. Toronto has a significant number of laneway houses and has recently modified their own legislation to make building this housing type easier. 

In Washington DC, basement apartments or ‘English Basements’ are quite common. When I lived there, my wife and I renovated our 1906 Capitol Hill row house to include a separate basement apartment. It provided us an important secondary income and I’d love to do something similar in Ottawa, where we live now.

Developers should be encouraged and maybe even required to build some percentage of new dwellings that feature rental units. It wouldake life easier for owners and diversify the options available to students and the elderly. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. 

About Night Walks

Many people feel we’re losing touch with the way our cities work. We walk and drive around them guided by our smart phones. We ride in a cab or an uber to go out to dinner and we do email and catch up on social media. 

As part of our work on the Capital Illumination Plan, we asked four lighting designers to lead night walks of the Capital last spring. Martin Conboy, Andrew Mackinnon, Bruce Mickeljohn, and Judith Balland each led a walk in a different part of the Capital. The story maps can be found here.

Are Coach Houses & Basement Apartments A Good Idea?

The City of Ottawa and other municipalities are exploring the idea of allowing small dwellings to be built on laneways and alleys, and the idea of secondary dwellings on existing properties in general. 

This trend raises a lot of interesting questions about densification and what makes a good place to live. Toronto has a significant number of laneway houses and has recently modified their own legislation to make building this housing type easier. 

In Washington DC, basement apartments or ‘English Basements’ are quite common. When I lived there, my wife and I renovated our 1906 Capitol Hill row house to include a separate basement apartment. It provided us an important secondary income and I’d love to do something similar in Ottawa, where we live now.

Developers should be encouraged and maybe even required to build some percentage of new dwellings that feature rental units. It wouldake life easier for owners and diversify the options available to students and the elderly. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.