Cruising or Perusing?

Imagine yourself in this space. Are you: a) on a boat or b) in a library?

If you answered b, you answered correctly. You’re in Surrey’s newest public library called Surrey City Centre Library.

It’s hard to tell though, isn’t it? The fact that at first glance you seem to be on a cruise ship or a BC Ferry shows how seamlessly Bing Thom Architects has fused literature and architecture. Note this bookcase that looks like a wave:

From a different angle, the bookcase displays literary stories whose shelves echo the ascending architectural stories of the building. Its shelves also mimic the horizontality of the steps I am standing on in the background, creating a dialogue between what you might call “bookshelves” and “people shelves.”

Photo by Larry Kwiatkowski

Speaking of people and books, Surrey City Centre Library allows you to “take out” people as you would with books. Quoting from The Vancouver Sun article:

“Surrey’s $36 million library, set to open at the end of the month, will allow users to check out’ people and pick their brains about their experiences with blindness, immigration, religion or a disability, among other things. The goal is to break down stereotypes and start discussions, said deputy chief librarian Melanie Houlden.”

This innovative library is giving space to people as well as to books. Along with plenty of book stacks, there is a coffee shop and lounge spaces for people of multiple ages and interests to sit, read, and simply hang out – making the library not only a study space, but also a social space.

Even though this 21st century library is a far cry from traditional, cathedral-like libraries shown below, I think there’s a symbolic relationship between the form and function of this building – or between its architectural structure and its literary content.

The John Rylands Library - Manchester, England

The John Rylands Library - Manchester, England

Why design a library in the shape of a boat? Is it simply to evoke our West Coastiness or our postmodern tendencies?

Or don’t boats and books both move people, albeit in different ways? We travel on boats to get from one physical place to another. We go on a similar journey when we read books – especially books that spark the imagination. Books move our minds so that we end up in a different mental place – or state – from where we started.

Surrey City Centre Library dons a new visage for a new information age while still invoking a sense of a traditional, sacred past through its large windows that physically and intellectually “illuminate” its grand and airy interior spaces. In the architect’s own words:

“I truly believe [libraries] are the new cathedrals. Libraries are changing, but what doesn’t change is that sense of sanctuary. It’s a social space, but it’s also a psychological place where there’s a kind of relaxed tension. You’re working with other people who are also working, so you are kind of inspired by them. There’s no other civic space like it.”

In this space where you could be mistaken for cruising or perusing, Bing Thom certainly gives us a civic space like no other.