In March 2021, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Killam Memorial Library at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the library invited Prof. Christine Macy to deliver a (virtual) lecture on the library’s architecture. In her talk titled “A ‘Brutalist’ Beauty: the Killam Library on its 50th anniversary”, Prof. Macy provided a very informative overview of the building’s genesis, placed in the context of the university’s unprecedented growth, the developments of college campuses in 1960s North America, infrastructure projects for the 1967 Canadian Centennial, and the reason for the prominence of Brutalism in institutional buildings of the era. Most of the information presented here was gleaned from this talk and I highly encourage anyone interested in the architecture of the Killam library to watch the lecture’s recording!
By 1964, the university board of directors determined that Dalhousie’s existing MacDonald library, built in 1916, wouldn’t be sufficient to support the growth in student numbers and the university’s own ambitions. Led by recently appointed head librarian Louis Vagianos, who had been recruited from Brown University during a tour of recent libraries by university representatives, the project got underway in 1966 with the selection of the architecture firm of Leslie R. Fairn (who had built the Halifax Memorial Library in 1951) with lead architect Ojars Biskaps.
Inspired notably by Louis Kahn’s Class of 1945 Library at the Philipps Academy in Exeter, NH, Biskaps conceived his library from the inside out, in what he describes as a centrifugal motion. Like Kahn, Biskaps designed his library around a central atrium, around which are the main circulation paths, then bookshelves and finally study carrels along the periphery. But where the Exeter library provides a generous window for each carrel, the Killam library is almost entirely devoid of windows on its exterior walls. All light comes in from the central atrium. The latter, designed as a social space with greenery and a water feature, was originally open. The current glass roof was only added in 1996 to mitigate the effect of Halifax’s climate on the livability of the gathering space below.
The central atrium wasn’t the only outdoor space that Biskaps had envisioned. The raised plaza that now lies to the west of the library was originally meant to include an outdoor terrace with gathering and reading spaces. This was however never realized, and all that remains of the plan is the presence of a horizontal slot where the terrace should have been, the only opening to break the seemingly impenetrable main facade.
Possibly drawing inspiration from Victor Prus’ Grand Théâtre de Québec (now enclosed in a glass box), the library exterior is clad in large panels of precast concrete. The panels exhibit an aggregate of so-called Dalhousie stone, establishing a material continuity with the nearby Chemistry building, which the library also matches in height. Raised on pyramidal supports, the body of the library appears to float a few feet above the ground, recalling Gordon Bunshaft’s Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale.
The interior design was led by the Montreal firm Arcop, who compensated the exterior minerality of the library with a generous usage of Brazilian rosewood in furniture and railings. Anticipating future advances in learning practices and technology, spaces were designed to be easily reconfigured and conduits for data cables were installed throughout the building.
The Killam Memorial Library opened in 1971 and was named in memory of Izaak Killam, a financier once considered the richest man in Canada, by his widow Dorothy Johnston Killam who financed the library.
The earlier MacDonald library, built in 1916 by Frank Darling and Andrew R. Cobb, continued to function as the science library until it finally merged with the Killam library in 1989. It is now an event space called University Hall.
I am grateful to the Dalhousie library for allowing me to take the images shown here during my visit in January 2023.
Library detail pages are primarily a place for me to collect information I gather on the libraries I visit, and are frequently updated. None of this should be considered authoritative, I am not an architect, nor a historian. If you notice something incorrect, please let me know!