BY JOHN MENDOZA
Located at the northwest corner of Kingsway and Rupert Street, the Collingwood branch of the Vancouver Public Library is a colourful hub of activity. However, this humble library branch holds a secret pedigree that elevates it above the 22 other branch libraries in Vancouver.
Unknown to most citizens of Vancouver, the architectural design of the Collingwood branch was designed by two celebrated British Columbian architects and could be the most important example of Modernist architecture found in East Vancouver.
Opened in July 1951, Collingwood Library’s design influenced its community in profound ways. Designed by local architects Harold Semmens and Douglas Simpson, the new building presented a friendly face to the neighbourhood.
In contrast to the imposing, old world bulk of the Carnegie branch at Hastings and Main, the design of Collingwood branch was firmly contemporary. The design reflects the spirit and work of famous Modernist architects: the glass expanse at the front alluded to Mies van der Rohe, the use of stone a reference to Marcel Breuer, the low ceiling entrance an influence of Frank Lloyd Wright. (According to Douglas Simpson’s son, Gregg Simpson, the architect studied under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Arizona.)
Yet due to its “effective scaling and proportioning,” the building presented a welcoming and accessible face to the local community.
According to one source, shortly after its grand opening, Collingwood branch recorded the highest circulation of materials for kids of any branch library in the Vancouver library system. If the architects wanted to create an open and approachable civic building, they succeeded.
The impact of Semmens and Simpson’s branch library design was far-reaching; it influenced the local and even regional architectural scene. The new design quickly attracted the curious, and it soon turned into the most visited Modernist building in Vancouver.
Its influence can even be felt in successive library projects such as M. E. Uttley’s Okanagan Regional Library (1955) and Kenneth Sandbrook’s New Westminster Library (1958).
Because of their work on the Collingwood branch library, Semmens and Simpson were commissioned to design the new central branch of Vancouver Public Library in 1954. Debuting in 1957, their new Modernist library building at Robson and Burrard Street earned praise for its design, winning the 1958 Massey Medal for excellence in Canadian architecture.
Despite this illustrious history, there are no guarantees for this Modernist landmark in East Vancouver. Due to budgetary constraints, the library itself almost closed during the 1990s. Moreover, the history of preserving heritage buildings and Modernist architecture in Vancouver has not been positive. (Ironically, Semmens and Simpson’s award-winning 1957 central library design has lost much of its Modernist features due to a renovation in the last decade.)
In a recent conversation, Gregg Simpson complained about the lurid blue paint that has been slapped on the exterior of Collingwood branch library. Ideally, the original colour of the building should be retained. As Gregg emphatically states, “To restore it to the original colour would be a great service to his legacy.”
Early photos of the building contrasted with the current condition of the building suggest that successive renovations have not been respectful of its architectural status.
The Collingwood branch therefore deserves consideration for its significance in the architectural design history of Vancouver. It exists as an east side example of local Modernist architecture designed by two acclaimed architects.
If it meets the criteria, the building should immediately be added to the Vancouver Heritage Registry as a rare example of Modernist architecture in East Vancouver.
As the library approaches its 60th anniversary in 2011, recognition is overdue. It would be nice if the library’s building design, layout and interior furnishings could be spruced up in the Modernist spirit, sensitive of course to the library staff and patron Renfrew-Collingwood’s humble historic landmark needs and to budgetary constraints.
Certainly the original colour should be restored and the signage could echo that of 1950s typography. At the very least, proper maintenance should be enforced.
For example, during Vancouver’s general civic strike of 2007, a vehicle crashed into the building, causing damage to the brick work. As of late August 2010, the brick-work damage remains and can still be seen just right of the main entrance.
The library and city should set an example for celebrating the city’s heritage architecture and design, especially in a humble neighbourhood like Renfrew-Collingwood. Refurbishing this building and many other heritage landmarks in our area is an important step in the preservation of our shared history and the first step of cultivating an identity for Renfrew-Collingwood. However, it will only occur if the whole community shares this aspiration and does its best to discuss this with others who can help in this goal.
John Mendoza has lived in Collingwood for almost 30 years. He is a teacher and aspiring writer. His interests include travel, reading, art and architecture. First published in the October 2010 issue of the Renfrew-Collingwood Community News.
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