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Historians' Library

Dowling Architects

Cambridge, Ontario, Canada

December 2021


Paul Dowling (Design / Construction), Catherine Dowling (Design / Construction)


Cory Zurell (Blackwell Structural Engineers), Ian Robertson (Meritech Civil Engineering)


Robert Jan van Pelt and Miriam Greenbaum


Henry Dowling


The owners' brief requested a detached building and garden behind their existing residence, with shelving for 6500 books, a desk for two people, support for ongoing research document binders within reach, a small washroom and storage closet, space for a sofa and chairs to accommodate visitors, and a shaded place to sit outdoors on warm afternoons. The quality and control of natural light was important for privacy, ultraviolet protection, and to understand the passing of daily and seasonal time. Extensions to the frame and stucco home should connect kitchen and sitting area to the garden, while adding a washroom, entry, and connection to the lower level.

In a northern climate that varies from cold, snowy winters to high humidity summers, highly insulated and airtight compact forms with open joint wood and corrugated metal rainscreen cladding allow secondary drainage and drying, protecting high performance envelopes and glazing. Insulated and polished concrete slabs provide a durable thermal mass to balance diurnal swings and with operable windows and deep overhangs foster passive cooling in hot weather, while energy recovery ventilation and heat pump radically reduce energy use in winter. Storm water could be contained on this site with a simple system of infiltration drainage.

Material expression, workmanship and the re-connection of architectural practice and education to physical making has been at the centre of our work, exploring the tension between place, form, and the natural, hand crafted or unexpected - diversity and character growing as light and shadow mark the passage of time.


Tucked into a residential neighbourhood a short walk from the urban core, a cedar walkway nudges past a rough garden wall, descending a few steps at each change in direction to gradually reveal a series of exterior gardens that unfold as the narrow path shifts to the smooth faces of concrete embedded into the hillside, the base for a light filled space embraced by the downturned U of a sheltering roof.

Nested within, a long gallery lined in unfinished fir is extended to the east and west by clerestory windows that frame the sky, allowing the slow disappearance of the morning sun and the sudden arrival of afternoon light to mark the passage of time. Long, low windows along the north side offer a panorama of the neighbourhood beyond as foliage disappears with the change of seasons, and a foreground of the contained garden where insulated wooden vents connect to breezes, smells and sounds. A sense of refuge and prospect is focused here, the threshold between looking inward to the life of the mind and out to the world. Overhead and sliding interior shutters cover lower level windows for privacy as darkness falls, evoking the snugness of a ship's cabin.

A generous east porch provides a sheltered place to enjoy the morning sun and a loftier lookout to the city below, stepping down to a low wooden platform shaded beneath a spreading maple tree at the bottom of the yard. Durable materials are allowed to weather and patinate over time.


As Cicero observed over 2000 years ago, “If you have a garden and a library, nothing will be lacking.”

Conceived and begun before the pandemic and completed as it began to wane in late 2021, the garden library commissioned by two historians to house their considerable collection of books and papers and to serve as their studio has become a refuge from the vicissitudes of the world, a porch to observe those often-bewildering changes, a place of work, and a backdrop in their engagement with the world through frequent virtual meetings, seminars, public lectures, and even an official citizenship ceremony - a most private building forced, like so many others today, to play a very public role.

When Cicero wrote his maxim about the library in the garden, he touched on the important truth later articulated by Augustine of Hippo: the Book of Nature and the Book of the Written Word stand in a dialectical relationship to each other - both should elicit our wonder and contemplation.

Cicero also believed that all worthwhile activity that seeks to change the world for the better has an educational dimension, instructing the young, thus building solid foundations for the future. The library was conceived and executed as a teaching tool and documented as a case study, built by the architects over 5 years with a series of undergraduate students from the nearby university, gaining an appreciation for material expression, workmanship, and the value of slowness in the abstract and physical making of architecture.

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