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Interview with John Nicholson

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Interview with John Nicholson

John Nicholson

John Nicholson is a principal in Nicholson Sheffield Architects Inc., the firm recently awarded the contract to act as prime consultants for the Central Library Revitalization project. As Malhotra Nicholson Architects Inc., this firm worked with architects Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners to design the current Central Library, built in 2002.

"My earliest library experiences are of the Broughdale Branch of London Public Library. I could draw that Library, I could show where different books were, history books, C.W. Jefferys’ The Picture Gallery of Canadian History. I loved the Hardy Boys series. The library was a really important part of growing up, just as it became important for our kids, as was the borrowing of books to create a reading, learning and listening environment in our own family.

I also think it was just the idea of it being a different place, an embedded place, when I was growing up. The library was a tiny public library but it was part of the school, it was part of the community. It feels like that’s happening anew with libraries being part of community centres. It’s just a different scale. It’s a very positive thing.

It’s interesting to be an architect working on a space for the community because you’re involved with a project really intimately for a period of time and then it’s over to the user, the city, the public. You get to see how the space is used and massaged over time. You have to step away a bit.

It has really been cool to go and sit in those spaces at Central Library, to be in the meeting rooms, to be on that stage from time to time, to sit in the seats listening. You’re cognizant of the work and the decisions made.

"I hold a strong belief that libraries in general are places to congregate, meet and learn together."

John Nicholson, Principal, Nicholson Sheffield Architects Inc

I’m so grateful that with the community’s help, (because it was fund driven), we were able to get the really critical pieces that made, what now seem to be, the strong parts of the Library. The Wolf Performance Hall jumps out, and the clerestories, the skylights and the windows. It’s unimaginable to me to think of the Library without those components. It’s not the Bay store anymore, it’s our Library.

As to what might be unique about a public library project versus other public space? I learned when we were working on Central Library for the first time, that it’s about the process. The process is so fundamentally different from that of other spaces in that it embraces the public input and interprets it. It embraces the feedback and input of so many people, of broad constituencies. It’s a really comprehensive piece. What I really liked about it was the broadness of the project.

I hold a strong belief that libraries in general are places to congregate, meet and learn together. That appeals to me. I think there are other spaces that inspire generally, but one hopes that a library also inspires the gaining and sharing of knowledge. The space has to allow that learning and the ability to learn together.

I’m always intrigued by the idea of Central Library being a branch in the first place. It does serve a downtown community. It is a grounding presence in the infrastructure of the downtown, speaking in design terms, speaking as a cultural grounding point for the community. It has a place on the street and a transparency both in and out to that street, so you can see the operations of the library and the happenings of the street interchangeably. I think those things matter enormously."

John Nicholson was interviewed at his office on July 9, 2015.