‘We wanted to make a library that was absolutely intuitive, one where you could understand its entire floorplan as soon as you walked in the door,’ says Craig Dykers, founding partner at international architecture firm Snøhetta and lead architect on Calgary’s new Central Library. The way the architects achieved this level of legibility was by creating an elongated atrium – or pointed ellipse – surrounded by a promenade of attractive timber staircases and balustrades that overlap at slightly different angles, leading your eyes up floor-by-floor.

The library’s long and interesting curving form may never have happened if it weren’t for one of the project’s major constraints however: having to incorporate a light rail transit line on the site and provide access between the city’s downtown and the burgeoning new East Village neighbourhood beyond. The architects, who worked with Canadian firm DIALOG on this project, proposed to encapsulate the rail line and create a welcoming red cedar-lined arch with gently terraced slopes that would lead people both up into the building or through to the other side.

The form of the double-curved timber-lined shell references the unusual Chinook cloud formations common to this part of Canada explains Dykers: ‘They are gigantic, it’s as if the gods had created magnificent arches of clouds that go hundreds of miles in every direction.’

Calgary library

The facade of Calgary central library. Photography: Michael Grimm

Inside, the library is characterised by hexagonal interlocking patterns on the windows and walls that signify community, but also bring to mind snow and ice flakes. The facades are composed of alternating panels of fritted glass and iridescent aluminium that allowed the architects to reduce the amount of glazing (and therefore cooling costs) of the building and enhance its sustainability.

Organisationally the spaces transition from louder and more ‘fun’ on the lower floors to more ‘serious’ and quiet on the upper floors. The ‘fun’ spaces include a state-of-the-art Children’s Library with playhouses and space for craft activities, early literacy programmes and full-body play, but everywhere inclusion and public access is key – the library offers almost 2,000 public seating spaces throughout its five floors.

On the uppermost accessible floor an elegant space with a circular skylight harks back to the great Victorian reading rooms of the past. With its ‘walls’ of vertical wood slats that allow fragments and framed views of the atrium and western façade beyond, it is both dynamic and intimate, encouraging quiet study and contemplation.

Timber interior at calgary library

The layered, timber interior at Calgary Central Library. Photography: Michael Grimm

At CAN$245m Calgary’s brand new Central Library hasn’t come cheap, but its dynamic and soaring timber-lined interiors, its progressive services and programming for new Canadians and members of marginalised and at-risk communities and the way it successfully weaves together two previously cut-off neighbourhoods, are more than compelling justification for its price tag.

‘Civic architecture is losing ground to commercial architecture,’ says Dykers. While not everybody might agree that a library is as essential a service as a new road or a tunnel he continues, the new library was born out of the recognition that ‘culture is a foundation of society and the way we define ourselves.’

And of course, with increased tourism, residential development nearby and businesses moving into the area as a result, it will have beneficial knock-on effects for the local economy too. Calgary’s new central library is a civic building that manages to combine functionality, beauty and ambition; once inside you cannot help but feel uplifted. §