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Reading Community
Designed by Lake-Flato and Shepley Bulfinch, Austin's new central library will be a hub for the capital city.
Courtesy MOKA Studio

Austin’s new central library will, contrary to what some might think, contain actual books. Lots of books. But it will also be a community center, a place that unites technology and people, paper and screen, and, ultimately, city and nature. With thousands of people now living in downtown Austin (and more to come), architects, planners, and city leaders took the opportunity to not only re-examine the traditional function of a library in an age of e-books and internet connectivity, but also to consider the role of this building in its context and its community.

Austinites are known for their highly participatory and democratic inclinations, and they made their vision of the new library known. “People wanted to make sure the library didn’t just have books, but also different kinds of nice places to read books and interact with technology,” said Jonathan Smith, project architect at Lake|Flato Architects in San Antonio, which is partnering with Boston’s Shepley Bulfinch in an integrated joint venture for the project. Lake|Flato completed the schematic design and design development, and is currently overseeing contract administration; Shepley Bullfinch executed the programming and construction documents.

The interior of the library is dominated by a six-story atrium.

The site for the new and long-overdue central library is indeed a nice place in and of itself. Located on the north shore of the city’s lakefront, the library will act as the terminus for a lively, pedestrian-oriented urban corridor on its northern urban edge, and connect to riparian landscape and long vistas across Lady Bird Lake to the south. Its street presence will animate and complete the until-now quiet, western end of the Second Street District, and make an important physical connection to the city’s hike and bike trail. Music venue ACL Live and the W Hotel, as well as hip shops and restaurants, are a stretch to the east, while at lake level, pedestrian and bike access connects to the city’s ten-mile-long network of trails.

A 38-story residential tower is being developed by Trammel Crow across Shoal Creek to the east, where the building engages the hike and bike trail. “On this edge, the design accommodates a pedestrian connection between the library and the riparian character of the creek,” said Steve Raike, project manager with Lake|Flato. “These goals are firmly embedded in Austin’s Great Streets design standards.” Here, bench seating, shade trees, and bike parking provide an intimate, welcoming entry to the library, removed from the activity of the street level above. To the west, the city’s decommissioned, iconic 1950s Seaholm Power Plant is being re-envisioned as a mixed-use complex, finally completing this western sector of downtown.

The library's street presence will complete the western end of the Second Street District.

Inside the building, the space is dominated by what Raike calls the “big move” of the project: a six-story, light-filled atrium that provides vertical circulation and a variety of scales of spaces for people to gather or to be alone, to research or to brainstorm. A multi-purpose space will accommodate up to 350. At street level, a leasable restaurant space provides a social spot—think bookstore café—and a retail space will house the library’s own high-end, museum-style shop, both revenue generators for the city-owned operation. This integration of public and private enterprise takes its cues from nearby Antoine Predock-designed city hall, another municipal building that contains retail and restaurant space along its Second Street frontage.

With Austin’s high tech community and spirit of innovation, it makes sense that the library will assimilate technology with people. Smith calls it a “new hub for the citizens of Austin.” Not due to open until March 2016, the library has already received inquiries for space rental from South by Southwest Interactive, itself a hub of technology and digital innovation. Proof, hopefully, that reports of the death of libraries have been greatly exaggerated.

Canan Yetmen