Gensler’s Frisco Public Library offers a reverent nod to a vanishing prairie landscape

Big Library on the Prairie

Gensler’s Frisco Public Library offers a reverent nod to a vanishing prairie landscape

Once common in the Texas Blackland Prairie ecoregion, dogtrot-style homes served as the inspiration for an interior breezeway that will connect two distinct entrances to the Frisco Public Library on its north (seen here) and west sides. (Courtesy Gensler)

Much like with the tomes contained within them, the best kind of public libraries also, through their design, have stories to tell. At the Frisco Public Library, the first stand-alone library for the superlatively fast-growing city within the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex, that story is of the Texas Blackland Prairie.

Stretching approximately 300 miles from the Red River in the north to San Antonio in the south and straight through one of the most populated metro areas in the United States, this pedologically unique grassland ecoregion has slowly but surely been consumed by crop production and urban sprawl. Now, only scarce remnants are left—an estimated .1 percent of the original prairie vegetation.

Set to replace the city’s sole library, currently squeezed within a larger municipal building in downtown Frisco, the new 140,000-square-foot Frisco Public Library pays homage to the Blackland Prairie through various means. This, of course, is particularly germane considering the steady stampede of new arrivals to the city who are likely unaware of the disappearing natural landscape they are now populating. The new building is slated for completion in September 2022.

illustration of people walking down a long path toward a large library building, the frisco public library
West facade view of the forthcoming Frisco Public Library. (Courtesy Gensler)

The adaptive reuse project gives unlikely new life to a portion of a former 1990s-era Beal Aerospace rocket manufacturing facility, with the design of the $62 million new library being helmed by Gensler’s Dallas office. Tapped by the City of Frisco to lead the retrofit, the Gensler team—led by design director Justin Bashaw and senior associate Brian Nicodemus—worked closely with Frisco Public Library director Shelley Holley to envision a dynamic, multifaceted community resource hub that embraces a distinctly Frisco aesthetic while celebrating the ecological history. Construction began this April.

“Often in Dallas and the metroplex, when clients ask for a Texas aesthetic, you’ll see architects go to Austin, Hill Country, Big Bend, or Marfa—and they’ll take that language and adapt it here,” Bashaw told to AN. “At Gensler, we feel strongly that our architecture needs to be reflective of the local culture and the local climate. Instead of looking at our physical context, we wanted to look more temporally—looking back into the past at the ecological history of the site.”

“We looked to the really subtle nuance of the Blackland Prairie, the gilgai, and the micro depressions and used that as sort of an inspiration for the form,” he added.

soaring interior of the new frisco public library
View of the mezzanine level in the vast open library space. (Courtesy Gensler)

In transforming the old rocket plant, a tilt-wall warehouse structure like the many “littered throughout the North Texas landscape” per Bashaw, the design team developed a parti that harkens back to the dogtrot-style homes once common throughout the Blackland Prairie in the 19th century. Central to the library’s design is an interior breezeway that will connect two distinct volumes with two separate entry points.

A large, white structure clad in louvers that Bashaw said are “reminiscent of the grasslands blowing in the wind” will house the library proper while a second, smaller secured volume, meant to evoke the log cabin vernacular of the region will house an event space rentable to the public after library hours. The event space is meant to be accessed via an entrance on the north elevation while the library proper will mostly be accessed through the building’s main west-facing entrance opposite the library parking lot. The more ceremonial north-facing entrance lead to a procession of new development, described by the city as a “string of pearls” according to Bashaw. Those new projects will extend from Frisco Square to the north to a park located just to the south of the library site. Frisco Public Library will be one of the “pearls” making the connection down to the park.

illustration of people approaching the entrance to a low-slung building
West entry view of the Frisco Public Library. (Courtesy Gensler)

“The reason for the dogtrot reference really came down to a really basic problem of where the front door was going to go,” said Bashaw. “It’d be great if every project had a giant bull’s eye on it, showing you where the front door should go. But this one didn’t.”

“We ultimately decided that we needed two entries—one on the west and one on the north—and that the two entries needed to enter into a singular space, he continued. “And so, we drew a line right through the two doors, which kind of cut the northwest corner off of the project. We basically created two types of program[ming] on either side of what we call the dogtrot.”

Outside of the library, which retains the structural floor slabs (ideal for supporting both rockets and heavy loads of books) and soaring ceilings of the existing concrete building, the project team has envisioned a series of outdoor spaces that make further connections to the site’s prairie roots. Designed in collaboration with Ellen Calhoun Denk and Jenny Qualls of landscape architecture firm Studio Outside, the site will feature native plantings along with green infrastructural features like bioswales.

interior of a soaring library space
Elements of the existing buildings, including soaring ceilings, worked to the design team’s advantage. (Courtesy Gensler)

The design team has also created an interpretive nature walk adjacent to the library so that patrons can learn more about the ecological history of the site. Portions of the library’s exterior will also serve as rewilding areas where native Blackland Prairie vegetation will be reintroduced to the landscape. As Bashaw explained, certain moments along the path, while not as extensive as initially visioned, will be reminiscent of different regional micro-ecologies.

Additionally, a spacious terrace space will open into the library’s mezzanine-level reading room while a programmable plaza flanking the building will host STEM night activities, public markets, and more.

“I think we were pretty aggressive with our approach to outdoor space,” said Bashaw. “Particularly in Texas, but also across America, a lot of libraries shy away from outdoor space for a variety of reasons. But more and more, you’re seeing libraries become okay with this. So we pushed pretty hard.”

a long, wood-clad library building surrounded by grassland
Northwest corner view of the Frisco Public Library. (Courtesy Gensler)

While not seeking any official green building certification, the adaptive reuse of the building will incorporate multiple sustainable design elements. That includes a louver-clad skin system on the west elevation that will control glare while allowing indirect light and glazing on the west side of the building, and the east sides will be protected with passive and automated shading systems. A clerestory window will also introduce abundant natural light into the sprawling open interior of the library, which at more than twice the size of the existing library at Frisco City Hall, will include reading rooms, study/research spaces, a children’s puppet stage, and much more (other than the collections).

As Bashaw explained, the reason why the Texas Blackland Prairie played such a formative role in the design of the already award-winning project is that, simply, it’s why Frisco even exists at all.

“It’s because of this rich soil that we’re here, and it’s sad to know that it’s all but gone,” he said. “But the story of the prairie is one that we felt was worth telling.”