Though Quebec City can’t boast of a building like Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque, the Bibliothèque de Charlesbourg, inaugurated last year, makes a worthy little cousin. Winner of a 2004 Canadian Architect Award of Excellence, it’s a fantastic example of a functional and sustainable new building that takes into account the history of the site. I rank it as my favourite new building in the city.
The library’s design may be contemporary, but it nevertheless references Charlesbourg’s past. Most towns in Quebec were initially laid out along a linear strip. Charlesbourg, now a suburb with an old historic core situated a few kilometers north of Quebec proper, was different from other towns. Its Jesuit founders experimented with a more community-oriented radial plan, drawn up in 1627. Settlers were given pie-shaped slices of land and built their homes around a central square that included a church and common pasture lands.
This urban layout was still visible until the 1950s. Since then, buildings and parking lots sprouted up in this central area and the original urban plan was muddled in the throes of suburban expansion. The construction of the Bibliotheque, with its publically-accessible sloping green roof, is an ingenious attempt to evoke the pasture lands that were once at the core of the community. It is one of the largest public green roofs in North America and will make a lovely public park when completed.
Underneath this roof, the citizens of Charlesbourg do some intellectual grazing on a fine collection of books in a lovely open space. Although it is one of the 24 community libraries in the city’s network, it seems a fitting rival to the central library downtown. The building feels like a smaller version of the Grande Bibliothèque; similar building materials were used and there are the same horizontal slats and engraved words in the windows. The imposing silhouette of Saint-Charles-Borromée church, built in 1826, is visible from inside. There’s something soothing, welcoming, and thoroughly well-organized about the space. They’ve cleverly included a fun children’s section behind glass walls, giving kids the freedom to be as noisy as they want. The old Marist brothers college, built in 1904, was integrated into the new building and now houses the library’s art gallery. The library not only feels Scandinavian, but happens to be geothermically heated. Overall, the library and adjacent Trait-Carré historical district are a fantastic oasis in the dreary bungalow-strewn cultural landscape of Charlesbourg.