Monday, May 17, 2004

Carnegie spins in his grave


The main branch of the Ottawa Public Library is an unlovely concrete fortress at the corner of Metcalfe and Laurier. The city had the misfortune to need to move from the Andrew Carnegie-bankrolled neoclassical original library building during a period that favoured the movement known as brutalism. This was one of those clever-dick styles held up by artistes that sought to reject decoration, colour, or even shape, in favour of broad featureless slabs of rough cement. The effect is a depressing one; it's like walking into a Soviet apartment block. (A cramped Soviet apartment block.) It, in fact, is part of the Sir Richard Scott building, a federal government office tower. This makes the utter awfulness of the design understandable, if not excusable. I can't imagine how workers in that half of the building must feel about it. I managed to get lost in the interlinking access stairwells once, and found a creepy little morlock hole of a smoke shop in the basement; I've never seen it again, although to be fair, I wouldn't really want to. Some recent renovations have helped overcome some of the most user-unfriendly quirks of design, such as a circulation desk on an awkwardly raised dais between floors, and a sunken main floor; however, others remain, like the single escalator. (Up only, if you please. Want to use the single elevator? Good luck finding it. The utility core is pressed up against a back wall behind different-looking corners on each floor.) The most prominently redeeming features are the wide-open atrium, which serves as a welcome antidote to the claustrophobic and grubby stacks, and the large stained-glass window on the fourth floor scavenged from the original building. That aside, I have fond memories of the place. I've always been a voracious reader, and when I was younger I made a point of seeking out and visiting new libraries whenever possible when traveling. How many people would, on a three-day visit to San Antonio, TX, spend an hour seeing the Alamo and half a day at the city library? I was always hungry for new non-fiction, new works of history and argument; thankfully, the web now serves that purpose, and I no longer have to set aside time to hang around the library. But hang around I did, in my youth, usually in one of the dimmer corners. I'd read the reference section. I'd read old newspapers on microfiche. I'd beg and plead with my parents to let me visit the main library on weekends - no small inconvenience, when living 50 km beyond city limits. The proximity of the library was one of the reasons I looked for downtown housing when leaving home for university. Yet still, I have a definitely ambivalent relationship with the building; it's cramped and unpleasant in all sorts of ways, and will remain so, no matter what cosmetic renovations they make. I can't recapture the (in retrospect, misplaced) joy of leafing through a foot-high stack of books while sitting in a battered, musty-smelling pleather chair under a pointless concrete overhang, if only because the location of that particular overhang is now the site of a coffee bar. The National Capital Commission has for several years now been pushing for a plan to demolish most of Metcalfe down to the Queensway to create a grand Parisian-style boulevard leading to Parliament Hill, against the city's wishes. Should the NCC ever get their way, the Sir Richard Scott building will surely be among the first to fall. It won't bother me in the slightest.

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