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Les chambres de bois: Montreal's handsome new Bibliotheque is a lively repository of Quebecois culture.

An island of seven million francophones isolated within a North American sea of 330 million anglophones, the politics of language has always been acute in the Canadian province of Quebec. The Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec (GBQ) is an emblem of the success of public policies devised in recent decades to protect the use of French there; the building is both a repository for the province's literary history, and a dynamic hub for its contemporary culture. Designed by Vancouver's John and Patricia Patkau, it is also public architecture and city-building of the first order.

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With its combination of research library, rare books collection, children's zone, multiple public reading rooms, multi-media holdings, gallery and theatre, the sheer size and range of functions arrayed within the Grande Bibliotheque place it firmly in the architectural line of recent North American downtown libraries. While most of its holdings may be in French, its sister designs are to be found in Phoenix (Will Bruder, AR March 1996) and Seattle (Rem Koolhaas, AR August 2004), not the Parisian tradition from Labrouste's Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve through Piano and Rogers' Pompidou Centre (containing, amazingly, France's first public lending library) to Dominique Perrault's Bibliotheque Nationale (AR July 1995). Like her contemporary Mavis Gallant, Anne Hebert was a Quebec writer who spent much of her career in Paris. A lyrical novel she wrote there--Les chambres de bois--served as an initial source of inspiration to the Patkau design team. Their GBQ concept is predicated on two louvred 'wooden rooms' contained within a similarly louvred glass box, nearly filling an entire super-block assembled between bohemian rue St Denis, an ungainly university pavilion, and the inter-city bus station, all of these set over a major Metro connection point.

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According to Patkau associate designer Michael Cunningham, early designs proposed pale-green oxidised copper shingles as cladding--alluding to Montreal church towers and 'chateau chapeaux' in that material--but for cost reasons this was changed to the glass louvres in the same colour, most likely a better foil to surrounding brick buildings than the metal sheets would have been. Certainly, the scale and textures of the coloured glass and wooden interior constructions resonate against the blunter concrete structure, the GBQ having an unusual--and welcome--clarity of construction.

Library patrons emerge from the Metro station or enter from a recessed corner entrance to encounter the first and largest of the two 'wooden rooms' wrapping the main library stacks. A sequence of quite differing reading rooms and carrel spaces are arrayed along the GBQ's main pedestrian path, as it moves up and around all sides of these slatted wooden walls, providing readers with a wide variety of light, view and privacy conditions. These spatial decisions are inverted for the second and smaller 'wooden room', home to la collection Quebecoise's literary documents and rare books. A skylit reading room demurs serenely at centre, surrounded by stacks in the nineteenth-century manner. This dynamic balance of introverted and extroverted reader's spaces is an apt architectural metaphor for Montreal and contemporary Quebec, where enduring local traditions have now come to co-exist comfortably with the finessing of global economic and technological forces.

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Quebec is doing more to fund and promote architectural competitions than anywhere else in the New World, and the GBQ design was selected by a well-run contest, where Zaha Hadid came second. 'Libraries are not really about sculptural form in the city', says John Patkau of both her scheme and Koolhaas' Seattle design. Patkau points out that their building has almost the same size and features as the Seattle library, but at just under US $50 million for the library and US $7 million for a related parking garage, it was built for one third the cost: 'We were obliged to find poetics in our pragmatics'.

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Article Details
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Title Annotation:John and Patricia Patkau
Author:Boddy, Trevor
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
Words:643
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