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Toronto’s Public Libraries as Architecture of the Everyday

10:00 AM, Friday 27 May 2022 (20 minutes)

With 100 branches welcoming nearly one million cardholders, the Toronto Public Library (TPL) embodies the architecture of the everyday. Library users build relationships with built heritage but also inform architectural interventions that adapt 20th century styles to meet 21rst century demands. Drawing on the ethics of brutalism, the aesthetics of civic architecture and the impact of neoliberalism on the public sphere, this paper argues that TPL is the site of three distinct yet overlooked architectural vernaculars. These styles emerged as heritage buildings collided with the everyday needs of patrons and the broader public.

The everyday needs of patrons are most evident in adaptations to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. These changes shifted Toronto’s neoclassical Carnegie libraries towards a local style of equitable improvisation. In contrast, the red brick paradigm established by St Lawrence Market and Victorian row houses influenced pre-construction changes to another prominent library. Brutalism flourished at several branches but demands for light led to significant renovations that again modified a global style for the local context. These three tendencies converge at Wychwood Public Library: ongoing renovations combine barrier-free design, red brick warmth and glass extensions signaling transparency and openness.

Taken together, this analysis of public libraries puts everyday people – rather than experts – at the centre of architectural practice. It provides a critical reading of how users, in this case library patrons, can renew our study of the built environment and shape equitable access to the heritage that surrounds us.

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