Etobicoke's Albion Library embraces changing urban landscape: Hume | Toronto Star

 thestar.com  7/18/2017 10:00:00 AM 

Instead of formality, hushed tones and dimly-lit interiors, the new Albion Public Library in Etobicoke offers open spaces filled with natural light and comfortable furniture.
Instead of formality, hushed tones and dimly-lit interiors, the new Albion Public Library in Etobicoke offers open spaces filled with natural light and comfortable furniture.  (DOUBLESPACE PHOTOGRAPHY)  

The new Albion Public Library in Etobicoke includes courtyards, gardens and spaces that are practical without being utilitarian and mean.
The new Albion Public Library in Etobicoke includes courtyards, gardens and spaces that are practical without being utilitarian and mean.  (DOUBLESPACE PHOTOGRAPHY)  

Clad in glass and brightly-coloured vertical panels, the Albion Library stands out as a unique presence on the streetscape.
Clad in glass and brightly-coloured vertical panels, the Albion Library stands out as a unique presence on the streetscape.  (DOUBLESPACE PHOTOGRAPHY)  

At a time when architecture seems little more than a desperate search for novelty, the appearance of a building such as the Albion Public Library offers reason for hope.

This new structure is a powerful reminder of what architecture can be when designed with users in mind, not its creators’ reputation. Only in an age of starchitecture, of buildings that see no further than themselves, of outlandishness and disconnection would such a distinction be necessary, but such is the tragedy — or is it farce? — of contemporary architecture.

The result is that, like cities everywhere, much of Toronto is a degraded landscape of architectural failure. Little wonder the idea that architects are the natural designers of cities has been quietly dropped along the way. Fortunately, cities are more resilient than their architecture. But as the library proves, at its best, architecture can still contribute to urbanity even when that means its task is not simply to ignore the context, but to critique it. Certainly the library does this — with aplomb. Given its location on Albion Rd. west of Kipling, that’s not hard. Facing the supremely hideous Albion Mall across the road, and unrelenting dreariness in every direction, the library proposes nothing less than a new vision of north Etobicoke, one that puts residents first, one that treats them as citizens, not simply consumers waiting to be exploited.

How appropriate that that building would be a library, the latest in the Toronto Public Library (TPL) system. A civilizing influence despite huge cultural and economic changes, the TPL has remained relevant by embracing, even leading, those changes. Unlike most public agencies, it has grasped that to survive in the 21st century, institutions must put users first. That’s why the new library is a community amenity, not a fortress of knowledge. The books are still there, but so are laptops, 3-D printers, video terminals and digital hubs. Today, talking and eating are OK, but there are quiet study rooms, too. Gone are the formality, hushed tones and dimly-lit interiors, replaced by open spaces filled with natural light and comfortable furniture.

Designed by Perkins + Will, the Albion Library also stands out as a unique presence on the streetscape. In this dismal suburban context, where concrete boxes and parking lots prevail, this marks a major departure. Clad in glass and brightly-coloured vertical panels, the building provides a welcome respite from the unrelieved ugliness of this postwar community, which for all its ghastliness, don’t forget, was meticulously planned and carefully controlled.

Unsurprisingly, local residents are largely immigrants who arrive here from all parts of the planet. The library must serve them all. “Some people describe the library as a ‘Switzerland,’ ” says architect Andrew Frontini. “It’s a community hub, a hybrid public platform. It functions as a social welcome mat in a neighbourhood of newcomers.”

“Flexibility is key,” explains TPL senior manager Gail Rankin. “Everything here must have at least ten uses.” A veteran of countless public meetings and focus groups, Rankin has learned how to listen and take her cues from what people actually want. In contrast to the once fashionable but faulty theories that dictated what people should want, the library is based in reality.

A good example is the parking lot that surrounded the original 1973 library. It has been cut in half and the old building, which Rankin calls “a concrete bunker with no windows,” is being demolished. “It held 128 cars, which we knew was too many,” she says. “We found that 50 per cent of the users walk to the library.”

Divided into a series of rooms — for kids, teens, adults — its successor includes courtyards, gardens and spaces that are practical without being utilitarian and mean.

“People feel this is an extension of their home,” says project architect Reza Momenzadeh. “It is perceived as a neutral safe place in the community,” adds TPL’s Susan Martin, “a place of transition for immigrants.”

The new Albion Library, which opened in early June, was an instant success. Even on a weekday afternoon during summer holidays, it’s crammed with kids and teens. Not only are they there, many walked all the way. What comes next? Clearly the rest of north Etobicoke has much catching up to do. That will take years and cost billions. But thanks to TPL and its architects, the process is off to a strong start.

Christopher Hume’s column appears weekly. He can be reached at [email protected] .

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