For the most part these days, when universities with major collections of research materials run out of room at their library facilities they move the books, and maps, and folios, and other materials to off-campus storage warehouses. Scholars can still use the material, of course, it just takes a bit of time between request and retrieval. When the University of Chicago found its Regenstein Library bursting at the seams, however, it recoiled at the thought of resorting to such a measure. Why not, the institution pondered, build a research library right in the heart of campus? One not only designed to house precious artifacts, but also dedicated to the art of preserving and archiving them? Why not build more than just a warehouse but a building of real architectural value—a space to ennoble the scholarly craft and serve as a laboratory for printed mater in the digital age? That’s just what the University decided to do with the
Sited adjacent to Regenstein, on the corner of 57th Street and South Ellis Avenue in the University’s North Campus, Mansueto replaces a once empty lot and tennis court. The location also sits next to Henry Moore’s “Nuclear Energy” sculpture, an homage to the first-ever nuclear chain reaction, which was executed by Enrico Fermi at the school. Chicago-based architecture firm Murphy/Jahn’s design for the facility seeks to preserve the site’s open quality as well as views and access to the Moore piece. To do this, the architects proposed burying the storage function underground since it did not call for daylight and in fact is better without it. The reading room, circulation desk, and preservation department, on the other hand, they housed on a single floor at ground level covered by an ovular glass-clad grid shell dome.
ASRS is a computerized robotic system of high-density storage. It has been used for years by the automobile industry to store and retrieve new cars, though more recently the technology has been adapted for modern research libraries. Librarians assign each item a bar code, scan it into the system, and then place it in a bin, which a robot crane then carries to an assigned place on a shelving unit. Mansueto’s system is composed of five aisles of 50-foot-high shelves. Items are stored by size, rather than call number, and can be requested from any computer with an Internet connection and retrieved in a matter of minutes by the robots.
It all sounds rather complex, and the building’s glassy swell has a futuristic appearance, but in design and construction Mansueto is actually quite simple. The cavernous underground storage room was prepared with slurry walls, a process of building a foundation wall in which a trench is dug in the earth, then filled with slurry—a viscous liquid made from water and bentonite—which keeps the ground from caving in. Into this watery hole a rebar cage is inserted and then concrete is pumped in, displacing the slurry and creating, after a period of drying, the wall. These slurry walls were done in contiguous sections until the oval of the storage room was complete. After that the earth in the center of the ring was excavated, the walls secured with post-tensioned anchors, and, voila, the storage room was born.
There are benefits and pitfalls to storing archival materials underground. It is cool and dark down there (both good), but it is also damp (bad). And one of the quirks of slurry walls is that, unlike other methods of concrete foundation wall construction, they cannot be sealed against water intrusion. To keep moisture levels in the storage room within acceptable levels, the architects added another wall within the slurry wall, leaving a gap between the two that forms a sort of rain screen system. Any water that seeps through the concrete is captured in a trough and allowed either to evaporate or is sucked out with sump pumps. Meanwhile, the space within the inner wall is kept at ideal temperature and moisture levels by the mechanical system.
The grid shell structure was designed in collaboration with Werner Sobek, a German architect and engineer who has made something of a specialty of the system and who works regularly with Murphy/Jahn. It is made up of 6-inch-diameter steel pipe laid out in a 6-foot-by-6-foot grid and anchored to a concrete ring foundation. Posts extending up from the intersections of the pipe support anchors that accept the glass panels—high-performance low-e coated insulated glass units. With the exception of a ring of clear glass at the base of the dome that allows unobstructed views out to the campus, the cladding is treated with a 57 percent pattern of ceramic frit. The fritting will help the enclosure reject 73 percent of solar heat gain while admitting 50 percent of visible light. It is also applied in two colors: black facing up, which makes it less visible from the outside, and light grey facing in, which serves as a reflective surface for uplighting incorporated into the air circulation towers that sprinkle the interior.