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The Collingwood Branch Library
An Article By John Mendoza
(from the Collingwood/Renfrew Times, Vancouver, Sept. 2010)


                                                Located at the northwest corner of Kingsway and Rupert Street, the Collingwood branch of the Vancouver Public Library is an
                                                unpretentious, colourful hub of activity. However, this humble library branch holds a secret pedigree that elevates it above the
                                                twenty-two 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 examples
                                                of Modernist architecture found in East Vancouver.   

                                                Modernist architecture may be difficult to love for the average person.  Unlike the ornately decorated buildings of the early
                                                twentieth century, modernist buildings are characterized by its cubic shapes, clean lines, and unembellished exteriors.
                                                Confounding the argument for preserving Modernist buildings is the fact that some have not aged very well; the superficial
                                                response is an insensitive renovation or even demolition. However, when designed with an architect’s discerning eye,
                                                modernist buildings have become important heritage structures in their own right.  Some local examples of Modernist buildings
                                                include the Electra condominiums on Burrard Street (formerly the BC Hydro Headquarters) and the Guinness Tower on West
                                                Hastings Street
in downtown Vancouver. 

                                               Opened in July 1951, Collingwood Library’s design influenced its community in profound ways.  Designed by two 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 sleek and contemporary.
The design referenced many 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 the son of Douglas
                                               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,
                                               after its grand opening, Collingwood branch recorded the highest circulation of materials for kids of any branch library in the
library system. If the architects wanted to created an open and approachable civic building, they succeeded. 

                                                Semmens and Simpson’s branch library designed 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, the partnership of Semmens and Simpson went on to
                                                receive the responsibility of designing the new central branch of Vancouver Public Library in 1954. Debuting in 1957, the new
                                                Modernist library building at Robson and Burrard Street earned praise for its design, eventually 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, but received a reprieve. 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 last decade. In a conversation with the Douglas Simpson’s
                                                son, Gregg Simpson complained about the lurid blue paint that has been slapped on the exterior. Ideally, the original colour
                                                of the building should be retained.  As Gregg Simpson 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 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 sixtieth anniversary in 2011, recognition is in order.  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 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 some minor damage to the brick work that has not been repaired.
                                                To this day, the brickwork damage remains and it 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 to 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.

                                                Information about Vancouver’s Modernist architectural legacy can be found in The New Spirit  Modern Architecture in Vancouver
                                                1938-1963 by R.W.  Liscombe (available in Vancouver Public Library).

                                                Share your ideas concerning Collingwood branch library by emailing Ms. Joan Andersen, Library Board Chair at board@vpl.ca

                                                Articulate Collingwood branch library’s inclusion in Vancouver’s Heritage Registry by sending correspondence to both the mayor
                                                and city council at mayorandcouncil@vancouver.ca – messages will be forwarded to the major and all council members.