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Calgary’s Central Library rivals Seattle’s

Calgary's Central Library rivals Seattle's
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Seattle’s library is known for its futuristic design and ‘books spiral’

In 1999, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and Seattle native Joshua Prince-Ramus were selected to design Seattle’s Central Library. The pair envisioned a pile of floating boxes, hovering at different heights and oriented in such a way as to respond to the building’s surroundings. The highest box veered toward Mount Rainier, while a lower platform jutted out toward Seattle’s port, suspended in midair, like a dock floating on water. Even the glass-and-steel skin that encased the pile of boxes was tailor-made to the environment, its panels altering in size and density depending on the wind and structural loads of the site.

When the $155 million library was unveiled in 2004, critics praised the design, applauding its fusion of futurism and functionality. “In more than 30 years of writing about architecture, this is the most exciting new building it has been my honor to review,” wrote Herbert Muschamp for the New York Times.

It wasn’t just the hyper-locality of the architecture that wowed critics. It was also the philosophy underpinning the design: Beyond being a place to borrow books, the library — one of the last truly free public spaces — was a neutral civic space where people could gather, engage their curiosities or simply pass the time.

Rather than impose the prevailing model for library organization on the site, the architects designed around the library’s programmatic needs. The main lobby is an “unprogrammed” space where visitors can relax and socialize in the airy, light-filled interiors. Level 5 is the “mixing chamber,” home to most of the library’s public computers and printing and copying machines, which Koolhaas, who later won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, envisioned as a “trading floor for information.” One of the most innovative areas is the “books spiral”— a “parking garage for books,” as Prince-Ramus put it — which streams across four levels via gently sloping ramps, removing the need to travel to other parts of the library in search of specific titles.

One could argue that Seattle’s main branch provided the blueprint for modern library design — so it’s no wonder that it’s one of the city’s most-visited sites and that it has been called the most Instagrammed library in the world. But it’s far from the only library that offers groundbreaking architecture and a strong community ethos.

Location: 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle.

Calgary’s Central Library is less touristy but just as photogenic

Despite its ballooning population and flourishing immigrant community, Calgary, Alberta, has always been viewed as a tumbleweed town. (Blame it on the annual Calgary Stampede, the self-proclaimed “world’s largest outdoor rodeo.”) But in 2018, when it debuted a $245 million (about $190 million in U.S. dollars) library designed by acclaimed Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta and Calgary-based firm Dialog, it stepped again onto the world stage. It was the city’s largest public investment since the 1988 Olympics.

Located in the city core, in the up-and-coming East Village neighborhood, the Calgary Central Library stretches horizontally, providing a visual break from the neighboring high-rise towers. Although it looks like nothing else in Calgary’s downtown, the crescent-shaped building is in total harmony with its surroundings. Comprising about 460 hexagonal panels, the glazed facade recalls snow and ice, while its whooshing, arched shape is inspired by the region’s warm Chinook winds, which blow eastward from the Pacific onto the prairies. The northernmost point of the building extends over an active light rail transit line, allowing residents in far corners of the city to access the site — a big deal in car-dependent Calgary.

Visitors enter through a wavelike archway constructed out of red cedar from British Columbia. Inside, the 85-foot-tall central atrium is clad in timber and features an elliptical skylight that floods the five floors in light, brightening even the gloomiest winter day. Several Indigenous art installations grace the interiors, including Lionel Peyachew’s life-size bison sculpture, “Education is the New Buffalo.”

The library’s facilities include a 2,400-square-foot performance hall, a street-level cafe and coffee bar, recording studios, a teen center and the TD Great Reading Room, where visitors can peruse books from the library’s 450,000-item collection. Pre-pandemic, guests could gather in the Elders’ Guidance Circle space to listen as Indigenous elders discussed subjects related to history, culture and reconciliation.

Visitors could easily spend an entire afternoon engrossed in the Calgary Central Library’s architecture, amenities and programming — or not. It’s also a beautiful place to simply pass the time and people-watch.

Location: 800 3 Street SE, Calgary.

Reid is a writer based in New York City. Her website is siobhanreid.com. Find her on Instagram: @siobhanmreid.

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.