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Art & Architecture In Cambridge, a library of old stone, new glass and few books

Cambridge’s Old Post Office on Water Street.

Tom Arban/Handout

The granite front of an old post office stands solidly on Water Street in Cambridge, Ont. But inside this 1885 building are things that its architect, Thomas Fuller, could never have imagined: laser cutters. 3-D printers. An espresso bar.

And it’s all under the auspices of the local public library, which calls the place an “Idea Exchange.” The Old Post Office, as it’s known, captures the spirit of this new type of library facility: There are very few books here, but librarians are here to educate and to help patrons create.

The new building, overseen by RDH Architects, is an ideal container for this sort of activity. The architecture folds together eclectic Victoriana and bright, spare neo-Modernism, packing new space in a complex weave around Fuller’s building. It sends a message: This is a public facility made for invention and reinvention.

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The facility is part of a wave of libraries that provide a wide range of services and programs: Most conspicuously, the new Calgary Central Library, which opened in November, and its Halifax counterpart. RDH has designed a number of excellent examples over the past decade.

“Librarians have found their print collections were starting to shrink, and so there was new real estate up for grabs,” says Tyler Sharp, principal at RDH and the Old Post Office’s lead designer. The main results have been “spaces of creation,” where librarians “can help you take the information you’ve learned and use it to produce something.”

There are almost no books at the Old Post Office but librarians are there to educate and to help patrons create.

Tom Arban

This is exactly the case at the Old Post Office. “People come to the library because they want to have an experience,” explains Helen Kelly, chief executive of Idea Exchange, the city organization that oversees libraries. “But the nature of that experience has changed.”

To illustrate, she led me to Monigram, the café on the main floor of the Old Post Office. When you order, the staff give you a table marker – a wooden card printed on the laser printers upstairs, in a plastic base that emerged from the library’s 3-D printer.

The library offers its patrons the use of these devices and instructions on how to work them. It also has a music-performance room, with a full array of electronic and electric instruments; video-editing suites; sewing machines and hand tools.

There are almost no books. However, another library branch, a few minutes’ walk away, has an extensive collection. Ms. Kelly explains that the Old Post Office facility is intended to bring in visitors to the heart of old Galt, and to provide both recreation and education – “digital literacy,” she says, that “builds upon a foundation of print literacy.”

Fitting all this required “threading-the-needle architecture,” Mr. Sharp says, “trying to take this technology and these functions and squeeze them into a building that was not intended for them.” The post office itself remains tightly constrained by a street to the east, the Grand River below to the west, and by buildings to the north and south.

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In organizing the library, the architects put performance spaces on the lower level, which sits within and behind the old building’s basement; a cafe and flexible event space on the first floor; and the children’s area on the second floor. Finally, there is a maker space for adults in the attic of the post office building, a tall gabled room that – after elaborate reconstruction and some coats of white paint – feels like a fine place to make something beautiful.

Indeed the entire complex has that same quality: just the right balance between sparseness and detail, rusticated and polished. RDH and their collaborators, heritage specialists Stevens Burgess Architects, chose to leave much of the post office building intact. They restored the exterior walls, made of rough-cut granite, and left intact some of the ornamental woodwork and much of the decorative stained glass. In this way, they’ve toned down – but retained – the eclectic spirit of Fuller’s building, which mixes up sturdy Romanesque and showy Second Empire.

And the two work well together. Mr. Sharp’s preferred palette for libraries is minimalist. He is a good enough designer to know that spare, largely white interiors need some colour and texture to bring them to life. Here, that’s achieved through crayon-bright upholstered furniture, but mostly by retaining the old.

The new addition embodies a contemporary attitude attitude to public architecture. “The general idea is of a very light, open and transparent contemporary architecture, in contrast to the existing building,” Mr. Sharp says.

The Galt building was part of a national construction program, meant to showcase the power and presence of the young Canadian state. (Fuller also designed the original Centre Block on Parliament Hill, which burned in 1916, and the Library of Parliament.) It was grandiose, with very high ceilings on two levels, a clock tower, and an entrance that required visitors to mount six steps to the elevated main level.

Now, RDH has placed a new entrance in a glass pavilion on the street; from here, you can take either a stair or a short elevator ride and then move into the heart of the building.

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And while the old building is asymmetrical, the new additions are even more so. They hang onto the back of the building, even protruding out over the Grand River. This is partly practical – the library needed more space – but also symbolic; as you see the building from a nearby bridge or across the river, it feels exuberant, unpredictable, daring.

Old and new come together in subtle ways. As you look through the glass, you’ll notice a pattern printed on it: a diagonal grid, which was drawn from carvings in the granite at the pediment of Fuller’s building. A pattern carved in stone is now marked on glass, shaping your vision as you look out to the city and the world beyond.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated that ERA Architects were the heritage architects on this building project. ERA in fact completed a Conservation Master Plan for the building.
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