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5 Minutes With... Halifax Central Library Lead Architect, George Cotaras

Before its doors had even opened, the Halifax Central Library was making a name for itself. CNN included it in a Top 10 list, and Azure, Canada’s foremost design and architecture magazine, pegged it as a building to keep an eye on. Since opening in December 2014 it’s drawn regular crowd sizes that are over twice what was initially expected. The building, with streams of natural light, an inviting meeting room, a multifunctional event space and, oh, some books, has become a cultural hub of Halifax.

Designed by Halifax firm Fowler Bauld & Mitchell, with design consultation from Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, design started on the landmark building in May, 2010. “It took longer than people anticipated, but they wanted to take the time to do it right,” says FBM’s George Cotaras, the building’s lead architect. The patience paid off: The library has been shortlisted for the prestigious World Building of the Year 2015 award in the category of civics and community buildings.

Here, Cotaras tells us in his own words what this building means for the city and its residents.

“We had several goals set out for us by the public. At the very first public consultation that we held there were 250 people and we didn’t even present any ideas about the building. We showed them other buildings that Schmidt Hammer Lassen had done and then we asked them very evocative questions: ‘How will a new central library change your life? Change our city?’ It was kind of a blue-sky visioning of what the library could mean to the city, what it could mean to them. We started talking about how it should be a community focus, and that it could be a cultural hub. It should have more than just books, it should be a place to gather, and a place to celebrate. And that was exactly what we were hoping to hear. The libraries of the future, they’re here now, are not the old traditional library with books, and a librarian with her hair up in a bun going ‘Shhhh.’ They are active community centres, and this library has set a new mark for that.

Courtesy Halifax Central Library

“It’s one of the first new buildings to be built in downtown in a long, long time. There’s a lot of new development happening now in the area; a lot of private development in terms of condominiums and office mixed-use buildings. The density of housing is being increased in the downtown core, so there are a lot more people starting to live downtown. They need somewhere to go. So we provided a lot of public space, both outdoor plazas and indoor spaces for people to be.

“There’s a huge amount of daylight streaming down through that atrium from a big skylight at the top. It was [inspired by] a Scandinavian attitude towards trying to get as much daylight into a building as possible, but also the public. They didn’t want a building that was dark and quiet; they wanted a building that was flooded with light. The old library, called the Halifax Memorial Library, was built in the ’50s, after the Second World War and was built technically to commemorate the war dead. It was a library of its era. It was very stoic, you had to go up many stairs to get in the front door and then up to the main floor. It wasn’t accessible, it wasn’t air conditioned, it was a place to come in, get something and leave. It wasn’t satisfying the community needs anymore.

“On opening day, almost 12,000 people went through the library, with I would say, a couple of thousand waiting in the front plaza for the doors to open. People just streamed in and applauded. There was screaming and applause. One kid got down on his knees and went, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you!’ It was very heartwarming to see people just come in and go, ‘Wow!’ and love it instantly.

Courtesy Halifax Central Library

“There are, on average, now about 6,000 people a day going in and out of that library. That’s two and a quarter times more than they actually predicted might go there. There might have been 800 or 900 people a day going to the old branch library downtown. Six thousand a day is a huge jump in numbers from where they used to be. I don’t know where these people went before they came to the library.

“What’s most rewarding for me is to walk in there any time of the day, first thing in the morning, at lunch, middle of the afternoon, or even 8 o’clock in the evening, and there are people evenly dispersed everywhere. We created a space there that’s never been done before: Paul O’Regan Hall, a 300-seat multipurpose performance space, that could used be for music, poetry reading, and movies. It can be closed off from the library; it can be completely opened up to the ground floor; it can be subdivided into 100 and 200 seat spaces. It’s multifunctional in many different ways with motorized seating that pops out and folds out into very comfortable theatre seats or they fold right back down underneath the wooden risers that are there and you’ve got these nice oak stepped bleachers to lounge on with pillows and cushions.

My favourite feature is the top floor, the big cantilever is the Halifax Living Room, and it’s literally a living room. You’ve got sofas and tables and chairs in there; you can sit and lounge and read a book. You get an amazing view of the downtown core and the harbour from that space and there’s a second café and a roof terrace. What I really like is the public’s ability to be able to get a high vantage point and see their city from a public space. That’s really nice to be able to do that for people.”

Published Friday, July 31st 2015

Header image credit: Courtesy Halifax Central Library



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