Bloor-Gladstone cross-bred with 21st-century cube

Today was the reopening of the Bloor-Gladstone library. (Pictures.)

Clamouring for entry

I stood in the rain with a cast of dozens – why must reopenings always happen during monsoons? – for the one and only entrance door to be flung open.

People, many carrying umbrellas, wait outside a brick building with an old sign reading TORONTO PUBLIC LIBRARY BLOOR GLADSTONE BRANCH

Instead, they let exactly one guy in, which caused audible grumbling. But he had been first in line, hadn’t he? Through the glass door, I saw him standing for photos. Later I tracked him down. Andrew Parker, 29, didn’t get so much as a canvas bag as a door prize, but did get to meet Adam Giambrone. (And vice-versa.) The reason I came here, he told me, is because it’s brand new and you can’t put a hold on anything here. So the selection would be good, he thought, holding a pile of DVDs perfectly befitting the hipster clientele (Eastern Promises, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist). “Next week I’m having heart surgery,” he said, so it was now or never to stock up on movies.

Palatial

This place is a palace. (See below.) Any midsized city anywhere in the Western world would be happy with this building as its central library. But it is only one of 99 branches here (admittedly a district branch).

Details

  • Most armchairs are by Knoll, including the kooky ones with built-in flip-up deskette.

    Black chair alongside round table

    (That isn’t one of them. And it takes two hands and a lot of dexterity to flip up the little table.)

  • Some exterior stone is still stained.

  • The entrance is just too narrow. Two people can barely pass each other, let alone one person versus a person with stroller or versus a person in wheelchair. It’s a serious bottleneck. (This grand “entry sequence” was meant as “a really simple barrier-free path,” which it is. It’s also a choke point.)

    The entrance is now below grade. They’ve learned the lesson of Beaches, which used to flood if you so much as spilled your Starbucks by the front door: Drain grilles stretch nearly the full width of the entrance. Plus there’s a giant tank that can hold the rainwater from “a 200-year storm.”

  • The second floor has a giant flatscreen TV with no sound and no captions, rather missing the point.

  • Both fireplaces have original hearths and new limestone slabs. They will be converted into functioning gas-fired places, with glass screens, later this year.

  • Everything that looks real is real. Counters are made of Corian (or facsimile). At the second-floor-landing reference desk there’s a bizarre Corian prism with a groove at the front whose purpose the librarian did not know.

Courtyard

When I heard they were putting in a courtyard, I immediately thought of something half-assed or quintessentially Torontonian, like a patch of asphalt with some metal chairs.

Nope: It’s a full limestone contemplation tank with a long concrete bench, a few trees in a pebbled landscape, and some rather ill-finished mating of a glass curtain wall to the original stone.

Courtyard has trees planted in earhten mounds amid pebbled landscape. Brick wall to left side, glass half-height wall at end, concrete wall on right

I’ve seen many inflections of this same design vocabulary in my travels, literally everywhere from Australia to Iceland. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a pleasant place to sit. You can bring your books out there, and the wifi works, too.

But why not some evergreens to provide “winter interest”?

I talked to the architects

…who were immediately recognizable at five paces, as male architects always are. I had been told to look for Bob “Goyesh,” a surname nobody could spell. There he was in what had been described as a Prince Valiant haircut. It’s actually Bob Goyeche (of the longstanding Rounthwaite, Dick and Hadley Architects; look for them next in the Mississauga library system). “Is that ancient French?” I asked of his name. He gave me a withering you-ignoramus moment of silence and said “It’s Basque.” (He then failed to respond to the word “Euskara,” so who’s ignorant now? And anyway, they speak Basque in France – still.)

The guy next to him conspicuously fingered his name badge. Oh, you want in here too, do you? Yes. It was Gerry Shoalts of Shoalts & Zaback. So I chatted them up. ERA Architects were heritage consultants, and Goyeche said they all had to do a bit of negotiating with city heritage staff just to cut out the basement properly and lower the entrance below grade.

I complimented everyone on the daring and unnatural colour scheme – when something isn’t wood or stone, it’s lime green or orange. We wanted contemporary colours, Goyeche said. If fashions change in ten years, you can repaint the walls (and, I said, swap out the furniture). We’re going for a timeless quality, Goyeche said, though I’m not sure you can be timeless and contemporary at the same time.

But if it’s heritage we’re talking about, I ask here, why paint the stone above the entrance on the inside? I can see why they’d truncate the previous grand two-storey entrance to create a pedestrian bridge overhead, which is fine, but why truncate or just remove the edge mouldings around those openings on the ground floor? (They were replaced with flat drywall.)

It was Tyler Sharp of RDH who gave me the most information. This architect could actually tell me something he was proud of in the new building. (Actually, I don’t know if he is a licensed architect.) He’s “proud of the level of detail and finish in design and construction.” It’s a minimal design that relies on a level of craftsmanship (to “an-eight-of-an-inch level”) more often found with an art gallery or a museum. A large volume on the second floor (whatever it contains) “zeroes out” with drywall on the adjoining wall, for example.

Unfortunately I am not sold on this, except as an indictment of the general level of mediocrity that’s accepted and encouraged in this town. He half-agreed with my complaint, actually.

And later, after an hour of running around and carrying six pounds of hardcover design books, pressing the flesh, dodging lineups, photographing everything in sight, and lining up interminably to use one of those accursed RFID self-checkout machines, I finally sat down for a while. On one of the benches at the periphery of the lobby. Where I realized that in fact an overriding design language at work here is the language of the art gallery: Expanses of stone, defined prismatic zones, places to sit and admire the architecture while nominally paying attention to the art (in this case, the books).

This is not really a complaint.

Perennial publicist

My best friend at these events, the publicist with the perfect Roman nose, sat there playing cards with the kids again. And ignored me again, until I ran into him later accompanied by his boss, under which conditions he had no choice but to shake my hand and tell me his name. Hi, Shane! Sorry I can’t do more to help your career along.

Realization

I have finally been able to put my finger on a thought that has half-occurred to me on my now-numerous visits to renovated libraries. Here’s a slogan to get you started: “Your tax dollars at work!”  TPL keeps getting awarded modest increases in budget, even as it carries out budgetary trimming here and there, because we want to reward something that’s already working.

But what I’ve really been ruminating on is this idea. We live in a city that is otherwise so wedded to mediocrity it becomes indistinguishable from outright championing of mediocrity. Nonetheless, we build giant palaces to every form of knowledge, all free of charge and open to everybody. What we do here is we build palaces of knowledge. Ninety-nine of them. And when they wear out, we fix them. We throw good money after good because we think libraries are that important – which they are.

Achievement

I returned the first book. (Again!)

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2 thoughts on “Bloor-Gladstone cross-bred with 21st-century cube

  1. It’s a minimal design that relies on a level of craftsmanship (to “an-eight-of-an-inch level”) more often found with an art gallery or a museum.

    Really? At slightly more than a glance I spotted several glaring construction and design errors including some awful, awkward and incomplete transitions, glaring gaps between walls, applique on glass which appears to be “bubbling” and even a nasty gray gasket used to fill in a gap between a wall of glass and the building’s old stone. Modernists have been trying to find God in the details for nearly a century now.

    This renovation was much more about material than detail. Material and materialism.
    What is new here is the showy, conspicuous use of expensive materials and even more expensive furniture.
    What is lacking is the respect due an aging but solid and proud old building. A building where “detail” meant hand carved limestone, custom shelves, wainscoting and glorious steel-mullioned widows thankfully spared the wrecking ball because the builders could neither replace nor improve on them.

    Most importantly, this building has no “library-ness”.
    Yet.
    That will take use. And with all of its’ twenty first century facilities it wont take long before patrons barely notice what it looks like.

  2. I’m glad that they do manage to fix the libraries as they get old. It would be relatively easy for the government(s) to see a broken library and get rid of it without replacing it.

    And you are correct they have found somewhere to increase a budget that deserves to be increased (even in small increments).

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