Lay of the Land
With one corner cantilevered out over the slope, and a long, flat silhouette that suggests a giant limestone slab dropped by a glacier, the new Waterdown Library and Civic Centre was conceived, in part, as an architectural response to the spectacular local topography surrounding it. Toronto-based RDHA saw the landscape as inspiration for what it calls “an extraordinary building, made of ordinary materials.”
As RDHA design partner Tyler Sharp explains, a few years after Waterdown, Ont. was amalgamated into the swelling city of Hamilton, its small local library was no longer adequate for the expanded range of services the community required. The new design had to incorporate a range of diverse facilities — from police and municipal community services to a heritage society archive and a seniors’ recreation centre, along with a new, bigger library — into a relatively modest 23,500-sq.-ft. building, and for an equally modest $6.8 million budget. What makes the building engaging is how the architects worked with these “givens,” and came up with a design that is, in a sense, an architectural portrait of its surroundings.
Waterdown lies on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment, an ancient core of deep bedrock covering much of west and central Ontario characterized by exposed granite, limestone cliffs and wild, rugged terrain. The building stands on a high point on the Escarpment, where the lay of the land drops a full 12 feet from the rear parking lot to the front entrance, and continues in a steep descent all the way to Lake Ontario, about five kilometres to the south.
Inside and out, the internal topography of the building relates to the natural one, descending in terraces or steppes from the library stacks at the summit, down through a series of centres to the seniors’ recreation area at the foot. Some of the angles and grade changes — such as long, sloped walkways and steps that trace the gentle rise in the floor of the library section — are purely practical. But there are also high, slanted ceilings punctuated by skylights and clerestory windows, a sun-filled atrium, angled shade fins along one long side, and clearly visible from inside, concrete exterior retaining walls that follow the slope.
Despite the use of massive-looking materials like poured concrete, there is a pleasing lightness to the interior, with slim white retaining columns, polished concrete floors and an abundance of natural light pouring in through load-bearing laminated glass walls. Variations in ceiling heights play with scale and help to subtly define centres without the need for much enclosure: high and bright in general areas and the atrium at the top end, low and intimate in the children’s section.
While Sharp relates that budget was a constant consideration, he says that one of the most distinguishing (and cost-efficient) features of the interior was actually pure serendipity. “I happened to have been involved with the renovation of the old Hamilton Library a few years ago, and after it was renovated, I discovered that they had stored a large collection of Douglas fir panels on skids, which had been used as baffles in the old library ceiling,”Sharp recalls. “They might have been discarded, even though they were still in fine condition.” Sharp seized the opportunity to reclaim the old pieces, had them reconfigured as needed, and gave them new life as book stacks and wall cladding in many of the public areas. “I think it strikes just the right balance between architecture and the landscape; there’s a relationship with place, being on the Escarpment,” says Sharp. “I’m an urban architect, who primarily works on city sites that are flat. So it was quite an interesting challenge to work on this.”