The Calgary New Central Library: Geometry & Light

In 1987, a group of architects and landscape architects came together with a common, trans-disciplinary vision for streamlining the design process. The group founded a collaborative studio and sought out a space above an old beer hall on Storgata in Oslo, Norway, a popular haunt for the creatives. The bar was named Dovrehallen, which literally translates to “Dovre’s Hall.” Something in the name stirred this group; Dovrefjell is the name of a snowy mountain range separating Eastern Norway from the region surrounding the scenic city of Trondheim. And so the new firm christened themselves Snøhetta in honour of Dovrefjell’s highest peak.

Snøhetta’s first project was no small ask; the group was brought together, in part, by their successful bid to design the Bibliotheca Alexandria in Egypt. The stakes of this competition were high: given that the Library of Alexandria was one of the most significant libraries of the ancient world, its modern commemoration would be an extremely high-profile structure. The new firm won from over 1,400 entries, and its portfolio of international projects was jumpstarted. In the thirty-one years since that first success, the firm has designed structures all over the world, perhaps its most notable being the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, a unique building that seems to almost emerge from the harbour upon which it sits. The venue is a popular tourist destination for its multi-tiered roof, which allows visitors to climb the building all the way to the top. In the winter months, drifts of snow cloak the inclined structure in a white blanket, changing its form and allowing it to merge even more seamlessly with the surrounding landscape.

More recently, Snøhetta has applied its Scandinavian design principles to another cold climate: Calgary, Canada.

The Calgary New Central Library opened its doors to the public earlier this year. At 240,000 square feet, it is 2/3 times larger than the original. Designed in collaboration with Canadian/American firm DIALOG, the building is situated at the intersection between Downtown Calgary and East Village. It’s a particularly unique lot, given that it sits directly on top of a functioning Light Rail Transit Line, which runs in a half-moon path along the land. The main entry is consequently elevated, encapsulating the tracks below and forming a brief tunnel. “Doubling as a portal and a bridge,” explains Snøhetta, “the entry plaza heals the previously-split seam between the two neighbourhoods and re-establishes visual and pedestrian connections across the site.”

The exterior is comprised of a crystalline geometric pattern that gives way to a soaring wooden archway, an inviting detail designed to welcome the 670,000 Calgarians — over half of the city’s population — who use the public library system. The firm explains that, when viewed from the entrance, this form is meant to evoke the Chinook cloud arches, a common site in this region of Alberta. The façade is triple glazed and its hexagonal pattern scattered and varying, creating a dynamic sense of play; look from one angle and you might see an open book, while another vantage point might call to mind snowflake-like linework or interlocking houses, meant to echo the importance of community.

Inside, the library and its sections are organized on a spectrum ranging from “fun” to “serious.” Lower floors house public events and organized activities or meetings — anything that could be deemed too loud or lively, encroaching on a visitor’s silent reading time. Climbing the stairs here is a gradually quieting experience, as these bustling community spaces give way to study areas. As one spirals higher and higher between floors, all the way up to the uppermost level, one will witness the city streets disappearing below. Noise is replaced by natural light, and at the very top of the library, the Great Reading Room stands as a “jewel box tucked within the library,” a peaceful space designed to promote focused study and quiet pursuits of the intellect and imagination.

Light in this reading room beautifully filters through wooden slats, which reveal glimpses of the hexagonal pattern of the façade. These afford a sense of privacy while maintaining an open, airy feel. Acoustics and artificial light in this space are both soft and soothing. Long tables and shared workspaces reiterate the idea of togetherness and community.

The Living Room is situated at the northernmost point of the library, offering views of the train line below that bridges the neighbourhoods on either side. This space features cozy chairs in hues that evoke both natural stones and greenery.

There are four floors in total, and each has been delineated with common spaces in which groups can gather to engage in digital or analogue practices. Want to unplug — or plug in — solo? There are plenty of welcoming spaces for that, too.




In love with this inviting library design? Check out our list of the world’s most luxurious reading rooms.