November 9, 2021

Vancouver Central Library’s Rooftop Garden: Best Downtown Public Space?

Photo by Paul Krueger.

If you knew landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander six years ago and asked her about the Central Library’s rooftop in Vancouver, she would say two things.

The first is that Moshe Safdie the architect on the project (along with Richard Archambault and Barry Downs)  had promised that she could build a rooftop garden on the library. The second is that Mr. Safdie did not have the money after the  build  to install the stairs and create the correct access to the rooftop garden that was required for the public to use it.

You can imagine that was a difficult conversation for Mr. Safdie to let Cornelia know that the rooftop garden she had anticipated was not going to be built as planned. And she did not forget that the rooftop garden was after all supposed to be for everyone.

And Cornelia being Cornelia, would not let this idea of a public rooftop garden on the library go. She took tours to the inaccessible garden that was planted on the roof, viewable only after billy goating up a ladder from the eighth floor of the library. You got there through a series of halls and backways to get to that ladder, and I seem to remember having to sign a liability statement.  Of course Cornelia scaled that ladder remarkably well and waited for her less fit invitees to do the same. At the time there were grasses, small bushes and Japanese maple trees, a surprise that was unseen by the public for nearly two decades.

It was her mission to see that garden opened and completed as she visioned.

In the 1990’s the City of Vancouver undertook a design competition for the new library, with three designs presented to citizens to be voted on. The design that was picked,  Mr. Safdie’s allegory on the Roman Coliseum, offered an internal street for public space, and of course was the only design that had a rooftop garden. The library cost over one hundred million dollars to construct, and cost overruns meant that garden could not be built at that time.

You have to remember that although rooftop gardens were being talked about and were being seen in Europe they were still relatively rare here, especially in a public building where anyone could visit.

Decades later during a planned expansion for the library the rooftop was finally made accessible, and some elements of the original rooftop garden were incorporated into the design.  Cornelia Oberlander also designed the 8,000 square foot roof garden as it is today, now a favourite place with plentiful seating and spaces to write, read or contemplate.

It is designed with spaces to be alone in, and spaces to chat. The tilework with a Venetian flare was intentional. The grasses, bushes, and plants are largely native to this climatic zone.

If you were up on the rooftop, Cornelia knew what maintenance was being done, what was “not good” and what needed to be rethought.  Somehow without being up on the roof herself  she had a way of knowing what was working and what was not, and there were always direct questions about your experience there if you were talking with her.


The rooftop library opened in 2018 and was immediately popular.  This link shows how some of the landscapes looked just after opening, and has a video of the head librarian talking about the new space.

But what does the space look like on a colder day last week? You still can’t buy coffee in the library to take up to the roof, but you can go to Pacific Roasters or another local coffee shop near the library and bring your coffee up. We did check with the library and that is just fine.

And the public space is being used even on a chilly late afternoon by people of all ages. There is plenty of seating for physical distancing, good turnover at the tables, and great views. It is a conversational reflective space, illustrated in how it is being used and frequented by citizens.

It is quite simply, one of the most comfortable, familiar feeling newer  public spaces in Vancouver, open to all.

Remember to bring your coffee.

Cornelia Oberlander, who passed away earlier this year, would have been very pleased.



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