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Fort York Branch Library (2014)

13 Jan 2016
Image Credit: James Brittain
Architectural Credit: KPMB Architects
In the early 1990’s American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term "third place". The "first place" is a person's home, where they live. The "second place" is a person's place of employment, where they spend much of their time. “Third places” are neutral public places where people can gather and interact. As anchors for community life, they facilitate and foster broad and creative interaction which is informal but intentional. Our public libraries increasingly play the role of third places, providing not only books and magazines, but spaces for community gathering and interaction. This concept is at the heart of the Fort York Library Branch, a recent addition to the rapidly evolving and highly diverse CityPlace neighbourhood.

Designed by KPMB Architects, the Fort York Branch Library uses architectural elements such as scale, material palette, spatial layout, and massing to achieve the characteristic hallmarks of a successful third place – accessibility, egalitarianism, wholesomeness, and a sense of community.

Above: The library within its context. Photo by Tom Arban.  Below: Figure-ground courtesy of KPMB Architects highlighting the location of the Fort York Branch Library (in red) and the surrounding urban fabric, including Fort York (West).

Unique Heritage Context

Located on the northeast corner of Fort York Boulevard and Bathurst Street, the library sits on what was once the original forested shoreline of Lake Ontario at the mouth of Garrison Creek, sharing the site with a residential tower and a future public park. Just east of the library is the Fort York National Historic Site, considered the birthplace of Toronto and home of numerous War of 1812 period buildings. Taking advantage of this unique context, the Fort York Branch Library has been carefully designed to create and strengthen connections among existing and emerging elements in the neighbourhood.

The angular trapezoidal geometry of the library building references the ramparts of Fort York. This geometry is repeated in the amenities pavilion of the adjacent residential tower, also designed by KPMB Architects, creating a common language among the site’s three elements. The connection to Fort York is furthered on the second floor of the library which functions as an extraordinary viewing platform to the heritage site.

Photo by Maris Mezulis 

Other elements further the sense of ‘belonging’ of the library, including the extensive use of Douglas fir in the interior. The wood recalls the old wooden cribbing found buried on site during the archaeological survey.

The library has also been conceived with connections to the future park in mind. The building is designed to allow pedestrian access from Fort York Boulevard to the south, to the future park to the north. This pedestrian pathway system will connect under the Bathurst Street Bridge to the historic fort and its grounds, linking the two green spaces.

Photo by Maris Mezulis 

The Urban Living Room

Central to the Fort York Library Branch is the idea of the urban living room, a place where informal gathering and social interaction can take place. This spirit is reflective of the Toronto Public Library’s mandate and vision to be the social heart of the neighbourhood. Many elements come together to achieve this character. From the outside, the two-storey pavilion is humanely scaled, approachable instead of imposing. Its glazed façade provides inviting views of the activities and resources within. Once inside, a variety of workspaces and seating options, the use of warm materials such as wood, and the employment of bright primary colours, all contribute in creating a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere.

In order to provide a resource for not only books and CD’s, but also community programs, classes, digital studios, and study spaces, the functional layout of the building provides a high level of flexibility for future program development. The flexibility of these spaces has already been put to the test. Since its opening in 2014, the building has successfully accommodated the unanticipated high number of users because of the robustness and generosity of its public spaces.

Photo by James Brittain

Integrated Art

A prominent feature of the Fort York Library Branch is its unique façade which has been conscientiously designed to be reflective of both the library’s context and content. Recalling the site’s historical character, the Toronto Public Library suggested using Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection The Journals of Susanna Moodie as a theme for integrated art.

Poetry excerpts from A Bus Along St. Clair: December, The Planters, and Path & Thingscape are featured on the exterior of the building. The illustration made by artist Charles Pachter for Atwood’s poem The Planters is reproduced on the perforated metal fins on the west façade along Bathurst Street. The image is visible from the interior and casts extraordinary patterns of shadow and light at different times of the day. The fins at the second level provide sun protection during the day and transparency into the library at dusk.

Photo by Tom Arban

Sustainable Design

Sustainability also plays a central role in the design of the Fort York Library Branch. The selection of the site at the corner of Bathurst Street and Fort York Boulevard was an important step in the overall success of this project. In order to contribute to street animation and encourage use of nearby public transit, there is no public parking provided on site. A dedicated green roof makes up 52% of the total area. The exterior fins mitigate heat gain and operable windows allow for natural cross-ventilation and passive cooling in the shoulder seasons and motorized interior blinds control direct sunlight and heat gain.

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