Library as Cathedral

Bing Thom Architects create a new landmark for a rapidly changing Vancouver suburb.

Bing Thom Architects

Surrey City Centre Library
10350 University Drive
(604) 598-7420

Surrey, British Columbia

Surrey, an unassuming suburb of Vancouver, is fast becoming a Canadian hub of exciting new public architecture. The growing city’s population will soon outnumber Vancouver’s, and it has bravely gone forward with development-friendly bylaws and a new civic master plan.

The predominantly working-class Surrey began its change from suburban sprawl to modern architectural capital in the 1990s, with projects like Patkau Architects’ Newton Library and, a decade later, the Chuck Bailey Recreation Centre by CEI (the walls of which now transform into nighttime screens for public art projected by the Surrey Art Gallery).

But it was Bing Thom’s Central City project in 2004—a mixed-use retail and educational complex that placed a university on top of a shopping mall—that set the tone for Surrey’s architectural ambitions.

So it comes as no surprise that the star of the new master plan is Thom’s City Centre Library, built alongside what will be a city hall designed by Kasian and next to a central transportation hub. “My goal was to create a sacred space,” Thom says, “a place that provides a meditative ambience as well as a collective experience.”

Playing with tensions between void and form, the library unfolds as a series of sculpted spaces. Patrons enter into an atrium that spirals upward through a procession of coiled stairwells and balcony fronts, which open up into a ring of skylights. The all-white interiors would certainly have been the preferred choice of the library-frequenting angels in Wings of Desire, had Wim Wenders set his film in Western Canada. But Thom does not neglect the pragmatic in favor of the ethereal; he provides lounges with Internet access for teenagers and furniture pieces by the artist Liz Magor.

The opening day last September drew a crowd of thousands. South Asian mothers with their children, elderly longtime residents, and teenagers stood proudly together, singing along as one of the librarians led the gathering in a heartfelt rendition of “O Canada.”

Nearby, hopeful planners have renamed Surrey’s infamously gridlocked King George Highway “King George Boulevard”—as if it were frequented by dandy boulevardiers rather than truck drivers and factory workers. But this is not quite Le Corbusier’s Radiant City—there are still many issues to contend with in the suburb. An angry old white man in a wheelchair greeted the multicultural crowd attending the new library’s opening with racial epithets.

Still, the whiff of promise is strong in this city of immigrants and blue-collar families, and there is real potential for public projects like Thom’s library to become catalysts for the community.

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