Washington, D.C was once a swamp. Today it stands as an architectural and urban exemplar of austerity and sobering restraint. The outlying residential areas have also been pulled out of the marshes and, over time, developed into sprawl, some of which play host to the demons of modern urban American society: inferior amenities, poor education, and social inequality. Though it doesn’t pretend to solve these problems, DC Public Library (DCPL) has begun to chip away at some of these ills with a program to improve a vital piece of community infrastructure.
Aware that it wasn’t enough to simply build or restore the most dilapidated of the district’s 24 libraries, many of which have not been refurbished since the 1960s, DCPL Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper and the library’s board enlisted designers whom they felt would challenge the status quo. Their libraries had to offer something that a wireless connection and a PC couldn’t. Along with Davis Brody Bond Aedas, Freelon Group, and Bing Thom, Cooper commissioned David Adjaye, the Ghanaian-British architect who flipped the notion of a traditional library on its head with his East London Idea Stores in 2005.
Unlike the other architects, who were paired with contractors and set to work on a single site, Adjaye and local firm Wiencek and Associates, was commissioned to design two distinct libraries, both in Ward 8, with the same brief, budget, and timeline. The result, from the outside, puts to rest any questions that high-profile architects are as good as their signature styles. Indeed, vocal neighbors have been quick to compare the two libraries as if penned by a different hand. Yet, these polarized forms belie their interiors where Adjaye’s characteristic affection for design is played out.
In the Frances A. Gregory Library on Alabama Avenue in the Fort Davis neighborhood in the S.E. district, material exuberance begins on the outside. Sliced into a lattice of different sized diamonds, the two-story pavilion’s external spandrel and low-E glazing form a skin that simultaneously draws the environment in and reflects it back, like a circus mirror. Designed to “dissolve,” as Adjaye puts it, the 22,000-square-foot building sits anchored like an island between the local school and a playground, but its closest neighbor is the stretch of protected woodland behind it. To say it revives DC’s historic swamp would be going too far, but from the rear verandah on the first floor and the purpose-built plywood nooks in the children’s section on the second floor a less manicured environment than the surrounding neighborhood is easy to imagine.
It is this subversion of context and play on the suburban site that Adjaye deftly taps into with his D.C. libraries. The squat, shoebox form speaks to an earlier civic architecture that was rolled out in the 1950s and, despite its conspicuous shell and heavy steel cantilevered canopy, the building somehow resonates with the residential milieu. Inside the circus theme is explored further with a frenzy of colors, materials, and reflected geometries that is more akin to an urban pavilion. Underlying this energy though, the library’s civic duty is clearly defined and the materials have been carefully choreographed. As with all of Adjaye’s public buildings, there is a clear and coherent code. Legibility is king.
Entering the library the visitor is presented with a series of volumes. The wooden-clad stack of circulation desk and staff room beneath the first floor conference room seem to hang from the steel roof above. Adjacent to this, a band of dark, semi-reflective, and metallic-painted exterior insulation wraps the building’s core, housing the services, rest rooms, and a community meeting room. Divided into pockets of activity, this sectional corridor is sandwiched between the double-height front—skewered by a dramatic black staircase—and the peaceful reading area strung along the back, defined by a second double-height ceiling. Here, there is an ad-hoc adult learning center, semi-enclosed by shingled glass panels, that was recently being used to host a free summer lunch program for kids. In the center, a bank of desks and power outlets are available for the 32 public access computers. The most surprising part of Francis A. Gregory is its young adult/teen zone. Tucked behind the staff unit in the far corner, the teen room is defined by a cluster of Senegalese-patterned pendant lights, designed by artist Stephen Burks, which hang from the double-height ceiling over desks and armchairs. The children’s area on the second floor intersects with the space allowing younger children to spy their elder siblings and school peers through low windows.
Chiming with the principles articulated by the 19th-century father of American libraries, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, Adjaye’s libraries reclaim the role of the once-vital community center. The community input has gone further than just philanthropy, however. Adjaye’s initial proposal for the William O. Lockridge/Bellevue Library in Washington Highlands—a cluster of richly colored spaces—was quickly rejected by locals for being too alien. The resulting formation—three smaller, elevated volumes protruding from a central core—is less than palatable on first glance. Its pinstripe of wooden planks against a grey shell is stark and uninviting. Its chunky gray feet that meet the faceted underside of one reading zone seem over-engineered and clumsy. Yet this device has made a hugely positive impact on the site and provides a covered space where markets and groups can gather.
As at Francis A. Gregory, Adjaye’s talent for illuminating an interior with joy and vitality is played out in a collage of materials and colors. Infused with a light green hue from a glazed light well, Bellevue fast becomes a haven from the surrounding doldrums. To counteract the loss of light from its sloping site, Adjaye inserted a glass-sheathed valley through the building’s core. Ascending the stairs over three stories it becomes clear that Adjaye’s vast glossary of materials are as functional as they are luxurious. Resin-like panels—deep red for the connecting corridors, black for the staff room, and yellow for the circulation—surround the green-tinted light well, which, in turn, becomes an orientation tool; a constant when spatial dynamism threatens confusion.
At Bellevue, spaces are more defined and zoning is generous. Despite sharing Francis A. Gregory’s footprint, this library deals in layers. Wrapping the outer wall between the second and third floors, a broad concrete staircase diagonally stretches each floor plate, acting as a functioning reading room of its own and allowing light to flood into the building. Meanwhile, the three pod-like volumes are used to distinguish varying functions: young adult reading room, learning room, and conference room with individual booths to study. Each one takes advantage of the corner hillside site and projects a view outwards.
The temptation with libraries built today is to dismiss shelves and books in favor of digital interfaces and seductive technology, but Adjaye and DCPL have resisted this path, joining libraries such as OMA’s Seattle library, where accessibility, transparency, and ownership are placed at the heart of the scheme. At both of these libraries Adjaye has designed for a practical future; the spaces are flexible, designed to anticipate the continuing trend of technology’s diminishing size and expanding battery life. There was a time when public institutions were solemn objects, stand-alone monuments to the civic duty being played out inside. D.C.’s two new libraries are as much about the places they occupy as the function they serve.