Modernist Libraries

Mid-century modern buildings & art

There are over 20 branches of the Vancouver Public Library  with only a handful from the mid-century still serving their original function and one, the former Central Library, which was repurposed. The best are listed here in no particular order with corresponding photos… click on addresses below for Google Map locations.

Central Library (750 Burrard Street ) – Designed by Harold Semmens & Douglas Simpson (1956-57) in the International Style, this formerly stunning Main Branch of the VPL, which received the Massey Medal for Architectural excellence and was once filled with colorful Eames shell chairs and a beautiful modernist wall mural by BC artist Lionel Thomaswas stripped to its studs and re-glazed in the mid 1990s. Although virtually nothing remains of the original building (its exterior looks similar) it’s listed on Vancouver’s Heritage Register anyway.

Fortunately a different Lionel Thomas art piece (not the mural) was restored during the renovation process – “Symbols of the Cuneiforms,” 1960 –  and installed on the west side of the building next to the Shoppers Drug Mart sign, it’s a real delight! In addition to the drug store, the building currently serves as the base for CTV Television, The Globe & Mail newspaper and a Victoria’s Secret flagship store (really!)

Kitsilano Branch (2425 MacDonald Street ) – Designed by Peter F. Smith, this branch of the VPL is still a thriving community library and has been altered very little since opening its doors in 1963. A true West Coast Modern original, this building melds the inside and out with its use of clerestory and floor-to-ceiling windows, natural stone and period finishings. A real beauty.

Collingwood Branch (2985 Kingsway Avenue) – This East Vancouver library branch opened in 1951 and was designed by Semmens & Simpson six years before their Central Library would be built. Despite many unfortunate alterations to this branch over the years – and there are a lot of them, including the paint color –  you can still see its original bones if you look closely.

Kerrisdale Branch (2112 W. 42nd Ave.) – Located at the Kerrisdale Community Centre, this 1954 structure has a very institutional feel to it, not that that’s a bad thing! For Baby Boomers and Gen Xers it’ll probably remind you of the type of building you went to school in; rectilinear in shape with unadorned facades and lots of glazing.

Dunbar Branch (4515 Dunbar Street ) – This early 1950s building is similar, but larger, in design to the post & beam residential construction that was popular at the time, featuring a pitched roof and clerestory windows. A major renovation was undertaken in 1990 resulting in the branch looking more like a mid-century modern knock-off than the genuine article. Still, it’s nice to see it wasn’t bulldozed!

Bonus Building – When Vancouver’s downtown Central Library was shuttered in 1995 it was relocated and replaced with Library Square at 350 West Georgia Street . Designed by Moshe Safdie, this post-modern complex resembles the Roman Colosseum and by no means is anywhere close to being within the modernist wheelhouse, but it’s become an iconic building in the city so we figured we’d better mention it. Located across from the very modernist General Post Office building.

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