Beyond the walls

Design-savvy Haligonians are demanding architectural excellence from the new central library design. But watch out for that Bilbao effect.

"Don't screw it up."

This was the not-so-subtle message that Haligonians sent Halifax Public Libraries CEO Judith Hare and her staff during public consultations for the new central library design. And many of us want a building worthy of international architecture magazines, Hare told a group of library students and practioners at the Information Without Borders conference on February 11.

Halifax architect Niall Savage isn't surprised. "It falls out from the Bilbao effect," says Savage, who won HRM Design Awards for both The Music Room and the Creighton Gerrish Development. "What does it mean to get a signature piece of architecture to a city or town, and what it can do for the city itself?"

The Bilbao effect refers to Spain's Guggenheim Bilbao museum, designed by Frank Gehry. After it opened in 1997, tourists and locals flocked there to experience those giant titanium waves ribboning up to the sky. International thinking soon became "if you build it, they will come and spend money." But ironically it was Gehry himself who, in 2008, said, "It's a bunch of bullshit. You do a building, you solve the problems, people are happy and that's nice."

When international sustainable design expert John Thackera came to Halifax last October, he also warned against the seductive power of trophy buildings. "They have a relatively short lifespan of four to five years," he said in a Coast interview. "Local people will go there once or twice. The number of tourists will start to taper off."

OK then, so what should we look for?

"I don't think that we should be out for the hottest building," says Savage. He explains that a good, environmentally sound design should take into consideration the fabric of the immediate area and beyond: Spring Garden Road retail and the mish-mash of institutions, smaller shops and houses along Queen Street. But that's not to say we should settle for mediocre.

"The new library can also be a wake-up call for the city," he says. "We don't have to be quaint all the time, we don't have to shoot low all the time, we can shoot high, but we do that with good planning and urban design principles. Not just to do something that's splashy."

There's also the added pressure of building a central library, which is different from a community branch, like the award-winning Keshen Goodman in Clayton Park. Its role, says Hare, is to inspire citizens, to be a place of civic pride, a community space. When others, like Montreal's La Grande Bibliothèque du Québec, achieved architectural success, the number of visitors also exceeded expectations. Built by Vancouver's Patkau Architects, the firm won Quebec's first international architecture competition, and was called by the Globe and Mail critic Lisa Rochon, "one of the most exceptional cultural salons in the country."

Though Halifax didn't benefit from the possibilities of an international open design competition like Montreal ("It would have been so much more exciting," says Savage. "You can set the constraints so you're not going to get crazy stuff, but you open it up and see what people do"), and the architecture team has already been chosen (see The Big Decision), there are future public consultations planned for after the announcement.

Even if you haven't picked up a book since Dr. Seuss, this institution will impact your city. Savage makes an astute comparison to another iconic Halifax landmark: "In a way, the new library should be like the Common land: for the people. This is for everyone."

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