A light touch: Bing Thom’s Library in Surrey BC, Canada

by Trevor Boddy / The Architectural Review, London / Published in March 2012

Daylight and books are often regarded as incompatible, but this library in Metro Vancouver is a poetic and scientific sculpting of light that animates a dramatic interior

Architects have come to view natural light as a generic commodity, not a precious animator of architectural form. One of the many unintended effects of this era of sustainability is to strip sunlight of the spiritual and synthesizing qualities that it held for designers right up to the time of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, and instead to consider it as mere illuminating photons or trickles of electromagnetic energy, like power from a plug. Beginning with Saint-Denis, Abbot Suger’s medieval doctrine of lux continua, the integration of light into public buildings has served symbolic as well as practical purposes, but lately it has been reduced to yet one more interchangeable item on energy management checklists.

However, the ability of sunlight to partially heat buildings is − architecturally speaking − one of its least interesting qualities. Thanks to ray-casting three-dimensional computer programmes for design and rendering, architects have, ironically, never been better able to predict how their creations will respond to the arc of sunlight, but never at so much of a loss about just how to put light at the necessary centre of form-making. Day-lighting has been reduced to a dismal science.

To say that Bing Thom Architects’ new central library for the Vancouver suburb of Surrey is obsessed with light is an understatement. This entire 7,600m2 building is shaped around its day-lighting strategy, its curving walls, angled windows and vaulted skylights reaching upwards and outwards to pull in a surprisingly even cast of light to every corner and every one of its four floors.

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 4.03.17 PM

The new library is imaginatively shaped around its day-lighting strategy. Natural light is diffused from a large oculus in the roof and bounced and buffered through soffits and angled balustrades into the interior

Ensuring that no portion of the stacks, reading rooms, classrooms or generous public spaces are without light through the seasons meant using a variety of techniques, enforcing the complex truth that fuller integration of daylight means using a range of light devices, no single techno-fix − another reason that many contemporary architects are not getting it right.

Glare and steep contrasts of lighting levels are to be avoided in libraries. A crucial strategy employed here was to admit very little direct sunlight into the CAD$26.5 million (£17 million) library − light here is bounced, buffered, diverted and diffused. According to Bing Thom, those few careful deployments of direct light in his design are like highlights of colour on top of a ‘ground’ of an impasto illumination: ‘We found ways to paint with light.’

The most dramatic of these is the ringed skylight, an ovoid, doughnut oculus whose mullion patterns in light and shadow track daily across the central atrium, enlivening the space. There is an angled reflector around the north rim of the oculus ring, directing light back into reading areas, but only five per cent of the roof’s area is open to the sky vault above, in order to minimize night-time energy loss in this temperate climate zone. These reflectors are fixed in place and there are no adjustable enclosures for the skylights.

The architect is skeptical about mechanical gizmos that ‘always break down − whether [they are] irises at Jean Nouvel’s L’Institute du Monde Arabe, or elsewhere’. Instead, he states flatly: ‘I’m more interested in how building form itself passively tracks the light.

A different device is used along the curving west elevation, which follows the alignment of University Avenue. At the fourth floor, the building’s glass line is pulled back from its cast concrete exterior walls, with a linear skylight set along the floor level here and at the same location on the storey below to bring an even wash of light deep down along interior walls, transforming these areas largely devoted to open stacks.

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 4.03.46 PM

A monumental staircase links the floors. Natural light is remarkably even throughout the building, so only limited artificial illumination is required

Thom credits the magnificent municipal libraries that he saw a few years ago in Medellín and Bogotá for this approach to the ‘enlightenment’ of publicly accessible book storage areas. The main reading rooms are set along the large windows lining the east elevation, allowing morning heating and views to the new Surrey City Hall and civic plaza, currently under construction.

For energy conservation reasons only a net 50 per cent of the library’s elevation areas are glazed, but strategically deployed for maximum effect − 80 per cent glass in walls oriented east (with its plaza view and desired morning heating potentials), but only 20 per cent on the west (with its late-day glare and unwanted afternoon-heating problems).

Functional and visually graceful architectural elements aiding day-lighting are the massive angled balustrades running around the atrium and up the monumental stairs. Painted in a flat white, the balustrades’ sides are set at such an incline as to maximize the diffusion of light from the windows and skylights, with their tops made extra wide to serve as horizontal light shelves.

There is a remarkably even cast of natural light all day in the library, requiring only occasional supplementary ceiling lamps. What Bing Thom Architects has achieved here with light might best be thought of in acoustical terms − finding a balance between liveliness and resonance in illumination. In those areas where the angled balustrades are set inwards to the active floors, carrels are built directly into them, with library patrons parked there and enjoying a splendid oversight of the entire building.

But it must be said this quality of light is achieved by very generous floor-to-floor heights and a large atrium − the net-to-gross ratio of usable spaces for the building is fairly low, and seating there has been packed since its opening last September. Post-occupancy, ibrarians have elsewhere placed standard pre-fabricated carrels almost randomly around reading rooms and lounges, distracting the eye from the architects’ layering of plan geometries (italic L-shaped and reversed italic L-shaped floor plans stacked one upon the other astride the atrium).

It’s too bad that Thom was not allowed to design furniture to match the architecture and spatial ambience, as Alvar Aalto did for his 1970 Mount Angel Library in Oregon. This is another temple to natural illumination, and a minor late masterpiece, under-rated because of its remote location, as was the case for the work of Bing Thom Architects until its breakthrough Arena Stage in Washington, DC, one of the most lauded American buildings of 2011.

In terms of how this all manifests architecturally, the glib line passed around by Thom’s local peers is that the Surrey Library is ‘Zaha Hadid on the outside, Guggenheim Museum on the inside’. As for much gossip, there is a germ of truth in both these assertions. Like many of Hadid’s projects of the past two decades, the Surrey library boasts unconventional applications of cast concrete, with bold cantilevers and angled walls.

Early Hadid works, such as those for Vitra in Basel, were the expensive creations that started with virtual buildings roughed out in overkill steel re-enforcing bar, then surrounded again by even more labour-intensive near-buildings in wood − formwork to shape the concrete to come. The concrete walls in more recent Hadid designs − the MAXXI in Rome and the BMW Central Building in Leipzig − have been achieved with a more efficient and economical means through the use of an unusually flexible concrete formwork system provided by German company PERI.

Thom was a North American pioneer in the use of the German-devised system, shaping the concrete cauldrons of his Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver, then the more complex forms of the Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle experimental theatre in Washington, DC.

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 4.07.13 PM

Though only half the library’s elevations are glazed, the building feels light and permeable, as glazing is deployed to maximum effect

The Surrey Library needed to be delivered under a tight design and construction schedule so that its civic owners could take advantage of a temporary federal funding programme for so-called ‘shovel ready’ urban infrastructure projects. Since structural steel delivery times to Vancouver are unpredictable − the city is located more than half a continent away from the nearest steel mill − concrete construction was the only reliable choice, and the PERI system provided flexibility for complex forms and tightened timeframes for set-up and concrete pours.

Standard 1.2 x 2.4m sheets of light plywood were set diagonally on the inside of PERI’s flying formwork. The plywood form liners imprint exterior walls with a dynamic set of markings, the resulting building appearing to lean outwards and push forward towards its northern ‘prow’ − a dynamic icebreaker slicing through suburbia’s frozen banality. ‘While Hadid’s PERI-formed walls are often covered in other materials, for cost reasons we used bare-faced concrete as a final finish, and Surrey is our most sophisticated use of the technology,’ says Thom.

The Surrey library is also innovative in its use of another device to shorten its design development and construction approvals period: social media. There was simply no time for conventional public meetings and mail-in feedback on the proposed library design so consultants instead gathered public input on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Thom is convinced that these techniques netted superior suggestions from a wider variety of citizens: ‘This is a city of young working families who do not have time to go out to evening open house consultations.’

It resulted in a number of shifts of the building’s functional brief − the addition of a lounge for teenagers and an in-library coffee bar. Astonishingly, the formally
and technically inventive Surrey City Centre Library went from a standing start to initial construction tenders reaching 70 per cent working drawing completion in a mere four months. When time is ever more money in architecture, this is the way of the future. With its central skylight, and banded rings of balustrades flanking an atrium, the library’s interior at first recalls the Guggenheim’s ramp-circled central interior.

A second look reveals the library as more nuanced and deflected by light and site concerns than Wright’s singular obsession for the ramp-flanked exhibition of art. Ironically, the Guggenheim interior never looked better than when Hadid’s career retrospective was installed there in 2006.

Thom shares credit for the library’s design success with Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, a proponent of what will soon be metropolitan Vancouver’s second most important urban hub. Surrey is a multi-nodal postwar suburb previously without a centre, but whose population will exceed Vancouver’s in two decades, and where one third of its citizens are under 19, prime time for library use. Mayor Watts says: ‘Architecture is something I take seriously − we need collective symbols.’ She notes that prior to entering politics: ‘I spent 18 years writing specifications [for an architectural hardware concern].’

The city’s transformation began with the Bing Thom Architects-designed Surrey Central City (AR September 2003), a hugely ambitious example of the hybridity of building programme, construction palette and formal typologies that have become the hallmark of recent ‘Vancouverism’. Thom designed an office tower and university for 3,000 students literally on top of a continuously operating 1970s-vintage shopping mall.

Surrey Central City is equally renowned for its innovations in timber construction, achieved with frequent collaborators Gerald Epp and Paul Fast, who are also engineers for the new library. While Thom showed a dramatic model of his vision for an integrated Surrey civic centre in the ‘Vancouverism’ exhibition at the 2008 London Festival of Architecture, the commission for the civic centre ultimately went instead to the firm also charged with designing the adjacent civic square and city hall components.

Surrey’s city hall is a vastly less accomplished building, designed in a joint venture between Kasian’s Vancouver branch and Toronto’s office of Moriyama and Teshima Architects. The best that can be said of this is that it functions as a bland brass setting for the prismatic facets of Thom’s gem-like conception.

The new library is but four blocks north of the previous Bing Thom Architects’ design, but separated from it by a long-standing rag-tag recreation aggregation of pool, ice arena, gyms and the like. Thus with Thom’s library and Kasian/Moriyama’s new city hall grouped around a plaza to the north, and Thom’s Surrey Central City with its notched plaza visually and functionally separated by the recreation complex, this is a dumbbell plan with some boxes set on mid-bar − a particularly dumb move, in my view.

This may explain why Thom’s new library leans so assertively out over the sidewalks along University Avenue − it’s as if the building is straining for a glimpse of its mother building, an infant arching up and out of the pram to reconnect with her parent building. When the recreation centre is relocated in the next decade, Bing Thom’s double achievement in re-shaping suburbia will be even more evident.