The Vancouver Library: Learning Made Luxurious

It was late 1995 or early 1996 and I had just returned to Vancouver after spending some time in Gainesville, Florida where I had been helping a friend of mine that I met through my first website, set up an organic waste reduction system that was using red composting worms to process roughly 30,000 pounds a day of dairy manure. You can still see some of my original website, as well as the fruits of Harry Windle’s (my friend’s) labors right here. (I’ll be doing a more complete posting on that project in the future.) Prior to working with Harry, I had spent a couple years in Saskatoon, at the University of Saskatchewan, trying to make up for all that education I missed by leaving home so early. All-in-all, a great time, but I was glad to be back in Vancouver, and I was walking the downtown area, just re-familiarizing myself with the area. I remember coming up Robson St. and just as I came out from behind a tree that was blocking my vision, I stopped dead in my tracks and did a double-take trying to figure out when they moved the Colosseum to Vancouver.

Front View VPL Main Branch
This circular Colosseum-like wall can only be seen from the front. The rear of the building shows the rectangular 9-story office building.

Of course it only took me a quick second to realize it was actually more like a replica of that famous Roman ruin, but if that’s the impression the architect was trying to convey, he had done a hell of a job. It turned out that that was indeed the impression the architect, Moshe Safdie was after, and like in so much of the work that has made him famous over the years, he had done a great job of accomplishing his vision. Mr. Safdie, it turns out, is an Israeli/Canadian architect, Urban Designer, Theorist and Author who is most readily identified with Habitat 67 in Montreal which really paved the way for his international career. For those who would like to know more about this amazing man, I’m including a link to a Ted Talk that Mr. Safdie gave, because I’ve always believed the best way to get to know a man, is to listen to what he has to say. But for now, let’s get back to the library.

As I looked into it, I discovered that the project was funded by the City of Vancouver, and it was the largest project they had ever undertaken, doing so only after getting a favorable response from the citizenry by way of a city-wide referendum. Thus, with the people’s blessing, and the City’s money, and Mr. Safdie’s skill, the project was begun in 1993, and completed in 1995. The 9-story library/office-building that is so cleverly surrounded by the Colosseum-like exterior takes up one entire city block, which in this particular case is bordered by Robson St., Georgia, Homer, and Hamilton. It’s interesting to note that when approached from the rear, say Hamilton and Georgia, the circular walls that are so prominent when the library is viewed from Robson St. are nowhere in sight. Instead, you see the sheer 9-story flat face of the office tower.

When you enter the library, however, from either direction, Georgia or Robson, the view is simply amazing. Predominantly glass from floor to ceiling, the wide-open spaces are shared by people and pigeons alike. The area does have a glass roof, the pigeons just don’t seem to have noticed, and they probably won’t, just as long as there are those in the food court area willing to share their lunch with them. But then again, Vancouver has always been known for our hospitality. On the one side of the walkway, there are various little restaurants catering to the students taking a quick break from their studies, or the shoppers from downtown who may have stopped in with the children to pick up a book or two from the library proper on the other side of the hall, or a video for viewing later in the evening. And there’s always lots to choose from.

The Food Court.
Inside the food court area of the Vancouver Public Library looking towards Robson St.

In the entire Vancouver Public Library system, there are 22 branches, which serve 428,000 members, which makes them the third largest library system in Canada. Last year alone they handled 6.9 million visits, and lent out 9.5 million items such as books, periodicals, video disks, etc. The Main Branch, holds in this one facility alone, over 1.3 million of those books and other items. Suffice it to say, you can usually find just about anything you may be looking for in the way of reading material in this one location alone, and if you can’t, the staff is usually more than willing to have it brought in for you from another location, and give you a call when it arrives. For that matter, I’ve never yet run into a library-related problem that I couldn’t find help with in solving in just a matter of minutes at virtually any library in Vancouver, and this branch has always rated high with me as one of the most efficient of them all. So you see, they’re not just another pretty face.

Study areas.
Looking through the glass at the various levels of in-library window-view study areas.

So since that first day when I looked up and saw this amazing new structure in front of me on Robson Street, the Main Branch of the Vancouver Library has become my branch. It is within easy walking distance, it has a great selection, and something that is always of great importance to me, it has space. Space to relax, space to work, space to breath. That space is one of the things I think I’ve discovered is so important to so many Vancouverites, and I suspect that it it that same space that accounts for the popularity of this building. Perhaps that is what Mr. Safdie knew when he built it. If so, then I can only say thanks. And for those of you reading this, if you have yet to enjoy that space, I highly recommend giving it a try at your earliest opportunity. I think you’ll enjoy it. I know I do. Until next time…

Robson Street Entrance to Vancouver Public Library
In this shot both the circular wall and the sweeping wall, which together flank the Robson Street entrance, can be seen.
Inside VPL Main Branch.
Inside the Main Branch of the Vancouver Library looking at the upward regions of the 9-story complex.

The Vancouver Library: Learning Made Luxurious

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