Turning Over a New Leaf
Libraries aren't just for books anymore, explains the architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News
David Dillon -- Interior Design, 5/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
If you've been to the library lately, even a small, turn-of-the-last-century Carnegie library with Ionic columns and a sporty dome, you know that things have changed. The stacks are still there, but they now hold videos, DVDs, audiotapes, even loaner laptops in addition to books. Computer terminals have replaced the card catalog, and the cozy study carrel has morphed into a chat room. Even Marion the librarian has become a techie, guiding the fearful and the bewildered onto the information superhighway.
And that's only the digital side of things. Should you crave a Krispy Kreme or a cappuccino, you can probably find one in the library café. The library store stocks everything from address books to Zip drives. If you get bored by your own company, there's likely to be a lecture, exhibition, or rehearsal somewhere in the building. The traditionalists may decry libraries' conversion to shopping malls. Reality, as always, is more complex.
A great library can put a city on the map. North America (Europe, too) is in the midst of the biggest library boom in 50 years, with dozens of cities erecting signature buildings that challenge the conventional notion of the warehouse for books. Most new libraries are designed to be community centers, cultural forums, and information bazaars. They are the showpieces of downtown renewal projects, embraced by mayors and city managers as much for marketing value as for culture. Moshe Safdie and Associates's Central Library in Vancouver, Canada, is part of a civic center that also includes an office tower, retail arcade, and piazza.
Exploding technologies and mushrooming social obligations are the Scylla and Charybdis of the current boom, prompting predictions that libraries will eventually need neither books nor buildings. When the San Francisco Main Library opened in 1996, it was hailed as the "library of the future." Unfortunately, it was the wrong future. James Ingo Freed of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners designed a spectacular atrium, crisscrossed by pedestrian bridges and framed by elegant study rooms dedicated to the city's minority groups. But all the architecture ate up space for books, which had to be deaccessioned by the thousands. The public protested, and San Francisco Main became a symbol of the dark side of the digital revolution, where history succumbed to cyber fantasy. The challenge for new libraries, therefore, is to find the comfortable middle ground between tradition and technology, books and bytes.
The $156 million Seattle Public Library, the most anticipated of the new crop, defies all notions of Carnegian balance. Rem Koolhaas has created a bumping-and-grinding tower of stretched aluminum and glass, comprising floating trays of space to hold reception desks, offices, meeting rooms, and other basic needs. Book stacks are arranged sequentially on a spiraling central ramp, an intriguing but potentially inflexible configuration. The centerpiece is the "mixing chamber," a vast open area where the patrons and librarians trade data like stocks and bonds. For Koolhaas, precarious balance is the proper architectural response to contemporary life. What remains to be seen is whether this is also the right strategy for a contemporary library.
At the opposite end of the spectrum—and the world—is the Oslo firm Snøhetta's new Bibliotheca Alexandrina. A celebration and reinvention of the legendary Library of Alexandria, the design features a monumental reading room more than 500 feet across, covered by a circular metal roof and wrapped by massive granite walls inscribed with symbols from all the world's languages. This inspired synthesis of East and West also offers columned rooms and cascading terraces. Though a splashy April inauguration was cancelled due to Middle East unrest, the building opened quietly instead and is ready to take up the combination role of market and media center, with a school, planetarium, civic plaza, and up to eight million books attached.
Among recent U.S. libraries, the most admired is Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix. Architect Will Bruder proudly calls his steel and glass box a "warehouse," yet it is clearly a warehouse with a difference. On the top floor, usually reserved for board meetings and dead storage, Bruder has designed a hall where 1,500 people can gather to witness solar events. (Chicago's Harold Washington Library Center also has a dramatic penthouse room, but everything below is retro silliness.) On the ground floor, Bruder has created a miniature oasis with a reflecting pool to entice parched visitors. In between are two floors of books, plus administration, storage, and a teen center with a café, surround sound, and 6,000 CDs and videos. "Phoenix combines wonderful people spaces with extraordinary flexibility," says library expert William W. Sannwald. "Those are the two things libraries need most."