Reading Rainbow

Reading Rainbow

When Chicago’s newest public library branch opened on August 29, neighbors poured through the door like they were carrying overdue books. More than 6,500 people attended the opening day of the new Chicago Public Library building at 2100 South Wentworth Avenue in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood—a new record. Crowds have kept up since, attracting about 1,500 visitors per day.

Why all the fuss for a new neighborhood library? This one was unusual, most notably for deviating from the architectural prototype established by the Public Building Commission of Chicago under previous Mayor Richard M. Daley. It’s also somewhat of a detour for its designers, Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In the present oeuvre of SOM’s work—from master-planning new cities in Asia to mocking up the University of Chicago’s successful bid to host President Barack Obama’s future presidential library—the 16,000-square-foot Chinatown library branch is a small project. But Chicago taxpayers were treated to the same thoughtful design as deep-pocketed developers, if the end product is any indication.


SOM partner and lead designer Brian Lee said the design-build team, which also included suburban Chicago–based Wight & Company, started with a survey of existing buildings in the library system. The citywide prototype, with its clean lines and two-toned brick facade, was an efficient and handsome mold, Lee said, but Chinatown should be different.

“Obviously the idea of a prototype has some merit,” said Lee, “[but] buildings take their personality from the site and who’s going to be using them, and those specific social factors drive the design.”

The Chinatown site is a triangular island amid the high-traffic, northeastern node of the neighborhood, where the Red Line rattles over Cermak Road. Situated between the gate to “Old Chinatown” and the pedestrian mall of “New Chinatown,” the new curvilinear building beckons across the thoroughfares that surround it with a glass facade that prizes transparency.

In addition to serving as “a pivot point, a link between the two Chinatowns,” Lee said, the new library is also a space for community gatherings. Under an ample ceiling oculus, the building’s two-story atrium unfolds like a traditional Chinese courtyard with a curving stair that flows gently upward to the library’s second level. Vertical aluminum fins punctuate the glassy exterior, lowering glare and enabling an open-plan common area to get by with little artificial lighting. Textured ceiling panels and acoustical curtains hush noise without physically isolating library patrons.

At $19.1 million, the new building is only marginally more expensive than its peers. The tight budget meant the design team compromised clear glass for a tinted variety and scrapped plans for a heat-and-power system that would have burned natural gas to power the building largely off the grid.

Even without those accouterments, Lee said, it’s a smart library. Officials with the Public Building Commission “proposed some pretty innovative features,” including a water-based heating and cooling system.

Brian Bannon, commissioner of Chicago Public Libraries, said it could be a harbinger
of things to come—although the next projects on their docket are all renovations, not new buildings.

“Looking to the future, I think this was a great learning experience and shows how we can responsibly build a location- and context-focused building while managing cost,” said Bannon.

The building’s identity as a neighborhood hub got a boost from a mural by local artist CJ (Christopher) Hungerman. A vibrant panorama, “Universal Transverse Immigration Proclamation,” was inspired by conversations with the Chinatown community. With neon hues and psychedelic strokes, it’s an unexpected abstraction of its surroundings and a welcome experimentation—just like the library that it calls home.