Photo: Nic Lehoux, courtesy of Bing Thom Architects

Photo: Nic Lehoux, courtesy of Bing Thom Architects

To say Bing Thom’s new central library for the Vancouver suburb of Surrey is obsessed with light is an understatement. This entire 82,000 square-foot 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. Ensuring no portion of the stacks, reading rooms, classrooms or generous public spaces are without light in all seasons required a variety of techniques, enforcing the complex truth that fuller integration of daylight into buildings means using a range of devices, not only a single techno-fix—a key reason many contemporary architects are not getting it right.

Glare and steep contrasts of lighting levels are to be avoided in libraries. A crucial strategy here was to admit very little direct sunlight into the $36 million library—light is bounced, buffered, diverted and diffused. According to Thom, those few careful deployments of direct light in his design are like highlights of colour on top of a “ground” of impasto illumination: “We found ways to paint with light.” The most dramatic of these is the ringed skylight, an ovoid donut oculus whose mullions cast patterns of shadows that track daily across the central atrium, enlivening it. There is an angled reflector around the north rim of the oculus ring, directing light back into reading areas, but only 5% of the roof’s area is open to the sky vault in order to minimize nighttime energy loss.

A different device is used along the curving west elevation. 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, bringing an even wash of light deep down along the interior walls to areas largely devoted to open stacks. The main reading rooms are set along large windows lining the east elevation, allowing morning heating and views to the new Surrey City Hall and civic plaza currently under construction. Again, for energy conservation reasons, only a net 50% of the library’s elevation areas are glazed. These windows are deployed for maximum effect— walls facing east exploit plaza views and desired morning heating potentials and are composed of 80% glass, while those facing west have only 20% glazing to reduce late-day glare and unwanted afternoon heating problems. The glib line passed around by Thom’s local peers is that the Surrey library is “Zaha on the outside, Guggenheim on the inside.” Like much gossip, there is a germ of truth in these assertions. Like many of Zaha Hadid’s projects of the past two decades, the Surrey library boasts unconventional applications of cast concrete, with bold cantilevers and angled walls. Unlike wooden formwork in her earlier constructions, concrete walls in recent Hadid designs have been achieved efficiently and economically via the use of an unusually flexible concrete formwork system by PERI GmbH. Thom was a North American pioneer in use of the German-devised system, shaping the concrete cauldrons of his Vancouver Chan Theatre, then the more complex forms of his Washington Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle for experimental theatre.

The Surrey library needed to be delivered under an extremely tight design and construction schedule. Concrete construction was the only reliable choice with these deadlines, and the PERI system provided flexibility for complex forms and tightened timeframes for set-up and concrete pours. Standard four-by-eight-foot sheets of light plywood were set diagonally on the inside of the PERI Vario GT24 flying formwork. The plywood form-liners imprint exterior walls with a dynamic set of markings, with the resulting building seeming to lean outwards and push forward towards its northern “prow”—a dynamic icebreaker slicing through suburbia’s frozen banality. With its central skylight and banded rings of white balustrades flanking an atrium, the interior of the new library does at first recall 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 with the ramp-flanked exhibition of art.

The urban transformation of this Vancouver suburb began with the BTA-designed Surrey Central City, a hugely ambitious example of the hybridity of building program, construction palette and formal typologies that have become the hallmark of recent Vancouverism. The new library is but four blocks north of the previous BTA design but separated from it by a long-standing rag-tag recreation aggregation of pool, ice arena, gyms and the like. This may explain why Thom’s 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 a stroller to reconnect with her parent. The Surrey library was recently given an award of excellence as the city’s best public building of the past decade by a jury that included Calgary’s David Down, Vancouver’s Margot Long and Seattle’s Susan Jones.