Check It Out

Check It Out

A few years ago, Peter Cook of Davis Brody Bond Aedas was charged with designing, together with the late Max Bond, two new public libraries in Washington, D.C. In a session that sought input from the community, he showed an image of a stalwartly familiar and classical Carnegie library, and most people in the audience thought it was a bank. As for the library to be replaced, a windowless 1960s brick block, the audience made it clear that whatever was built should be its opposite.

The process of recasting the modern library in a new mold, making it accessible where once it was formal and aspirational, transparent instead of defensive and protective, is gaining momentum in even the most budget-conscious municipalities. In 2004, the Seattle Main Library by OMA/Rem Koolhaas exploded the idea of the library as a quiet-time haven, turning the main reading room into a fully fledged social space. As Joshua Prince-Ramus, then a partner at OMA, commented, this open area became an unprogrammed space to “eat, yell, or play chess.” Nor were books hidden in stacks, but put on open shelves to invite heavy use.



“Seattle triggered a sea change,” said Juergen Riehm of 1100 Architect, currently working on a new concept for a children’s library as part of the Central Main Library in Queens. “The whole idea of highly flexible space, allowing for a variety of changing uses—civil, commercial, cultural—started there.”

At the same time and with even more radical intentions, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the city agency responsible for branch libraries, invited David Adjaye to develop their concept for replacing branch libraries with “Idea Stores.” To be located near shopping centers and in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations, the Idea Store eschewed monumentality and the privileging of books in favor of communal, educational, and media-related activities. The new model would house retail, library, community, and educational uses all under one roof, and its design would be inspired by outdoor market vernacular. With an emphasis on transparency and ease of access, Adjaye wrapped a basic rectangular form entirely in glass, with retail in the base and other services above, adding an exterior escalator to sweep visitors straight up from street to library level. Adjaye has designed two Idea Stores, in Chrisp Street and in Whitechapel, the latter awarded the Stirling Prize for best new building in 2006.

The success of the Idea Stores inspired the District of Columbia Public Library to hire Adjaye in 2008 to design two branch libraries in underserved neighborhoods in the capital. The design of the $9.5 million Washington Highlands Branch, now under construction, may not be as radical as an Idea Store, but it goes well beyond the bunker style of many other D.C. libraries built in the 1960s. Washington Highlands includes a garden, balconies, an outdoor amphitheater, and a conference and meeting room for as many as 100 people. Both the Washington Highlands and Adjaye’s second library, the Francis Gregory, are due for completion in 2011.

Davis Brody Bond Aedas has just completed two libraries in the District. The Watha T. Daniel-Shaw in Northwest D.C. opened in August, and the Benning in the Northeast sector, in April. With an ease of accessibility and transparency largely unknown in the city, the Shaw Library presents a vigorously jutting glass prow that stacks three floors onto a smallish triangular site with a soaring 20-foot open space at its center “to celebrate the reading room,” according to Peter Cook. A new green roof was funded by $330,000 in stimulus funds, and the Shaw’s LEED Silver status sets the bar high for all new D.C. public libraries. The Shaw is quite literally a beacon for its community, another role that older libraries may have implicitly suggested with their “lamp of learning” solemnity, but rarely made visible.


New York City is no less eager a student of the new model, with some 18 new branches in the works across the three official library zones of Brooklyn, Queens, and New York (which includes the Bronx and Staten Island). Most are part of the Excellence in Design program sponsored by the Department of Design and Construction (DDC). David Resnick, deputy commissioner, notes that libraries are “one of the very few free public interior spaces that are truly democratic rather than commercially coercive. They truly want what the customer wants.” The current effort to create buildings that draw in more visitors, especially youth and seniors, was inspired, Resnick said, in part by the bookstore Barnes & Noble and its success at turning itself into a kind of public living room.

The old New York model had to be tweaked: Rules about silence were relaxed; there were no longer command center desks; librarians had to be more forthcoming and engaged; there had to be lots of windows. Above all, books would no longer be the primary attraction, according to Resnick, but just one of numerous media and activities on offer. Multipurpose rooms can be booked even when a library itself is closed.

Commissioned by the DDC, Andrew Berman has designed an addition to a Carnegie library in Stapleton, Staten Island, designed by Carrère & Hastings in 1907. The small village-green facing edifice will more than double in size. Berman conceived the new space not only as a community library but “as a destination where reading is just one offering,” along with sitting, searching the web, or joining a social group. The aim was to welcome rather than intimidate users who might be unable to read, do not often speak with English, or feel threatened by the bastion-of-learning approach favored by older libraries. Berman moved the primary entrance to the long facade of the new addition, where ample glass plays up the idea of transparency, and books, videos, and recordings are temptingly visible from the street. A grade-level entrance makes it easier to drop in. There are no visible blank walls or sheetrock, while the interior is almost completely day-lighted. At night and after hours, with ongoing meetings in various multipurpose rooms, Berman said, the Stapleton library has become a “nightlight for the community.”

Scott Marble of Marble Fairbanks faced a brick bunker-style library from the 1960s in Glen Oaks, Queens. “It was prominently sited with not one window on the public front, a real eyesore,” said Marble. “It’s shocking that people thought that way.” Low maintenance and a different mindset about public experience shaped the design, along with scant commitment of public funds. “It was all about focusing inward and avoiding distractions—like looking out at a tree,” he said.

Marble wanted to reverse that and make a library that would be “a visually open icon for people.” Budget constraints are still a factor, but Marble created a design that reaches out to the neighborhood with multiple entrances, and a garden with bluestone pavers that he hopes locals will feel free to replant (Kate Orff of SCAPE helped with the planting scheme). Since older sites for libraries are often smaller than current programs require, Marble located the main reading room below grade, with skylights and a green roof at ground level.

Turning libraries from resource-guzzling to self-sustaining is another priority, as libraries everywhere experience staff cuts and heightened electricity needs for computers. A large interior atrium connecting all three levels of the library combined with substantial glazing on two sides allows the interiors to be primarily illuminated by daylight.

On the roof, a parapet concealing mechanicals is sheathed in glass that is etched with the word “SEARCH,” whose letters track across the facade as the sun moves. It’s a fitting term for the active approach to a new generation of public libraries determined to find and keep their communities engaged.