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    ArchitectureMARCH 11, 2013PAGE 53 THE NEW REPUBLICThe revolution at your community library. By Sarah Williams GoldhagenThird Places NVennesla Library and Cultural Center, Vennesla, NorwayNOW THAT A DIGITAL COPY OF THE Library of Congress’s entire book collection could f_it in a single shoebox, the future of the contemporary library is up for grabs. The New York Public Library’s proposed reconf_iguration of its Manhattan headquar-ters is only the most recent high-visibility entrant in a debate that has been ongo-ing since the mid-1990s, manifested in the press and in a series of large urban central library projects in Berlin, Singapore, Seattle, and elsewhere. What should a contem-porary library be? Seattle is one oft-cited exemplar: there Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of the Of_f_ice of Metropolitan Architecture jettisoned the reading rooms, study carrels, and hushed whispers of the traditional library in favor of a dramatic multi-story “living room” where patrons could, according to the architects, “eat, yell, or play chess.” But to f_ind architects, librarians, and municipalities who have re-conceptualized the contemporary public library with a more nuanced and promising vision, we must turn our attentions away from noisy Seattle and other large projects toward the modest community library.Around the globe, a handful of innovative architects are forging a new building type with a deceptively familiar name. These libraries offer something found nowhere else in the contemporary city: heavily used, not-for-prof_it communal spaces that facil-itate many and various kinds of informal social interactions and private uses. Rang-ing in size from f_ive thousand square feet, a smallish McMansion in Westchester, to thirty thousand square feet, the size of Der-ek Jeter’s home near Tampa, some of these community libraries are neighborhood branches of an urban library system, and others stand alone. These buildings look nothing like one another, yet they all of_fer exemplary moments of architectural inno-vation. Collectively, they make the case that H.scE.scL.scE.scN.sc it must still of_fer private moments in communal places, moments saturated in silence, light, the knowledge and the creativity of human expression. And all on a tight budget.How to distill such competing if not colliding imperatives—public, private; icon-ic, domestic; distinctive, local—into a co-herent design? Even though technically all that a community library actually needs is enclosed, climate-controlled loft spaces, in fact it needs more. Only good design can make a mute, inert edif_ice convey to people that it embraces all comers and embodies their community’s shared identity. Many of the new library designs are loft-like spaces writ monumental, but they are much more than warehouses for computers, books, and people. Monumentalizing domesticity by design, they take their cues from the needs of people in general and community library patrons in particular: the neighbor-hood’s scale, the proportions of the human body, people’s innate receptivity to natural light, their tactile sensitivity and associative responsiveness to materials.T.scW.scO.sc P.scR.scO.scJ.scE.scC.scT.scS.sc O.scN.sc T.scH.scE.sc W.scE.scS.scT.sc C.scO.scA.scS.scT.scexemplify how just a few excellent design ARCHITECTUREmoves can transform even modest space into a civic magnet. Anne Fougeron’s In-gleside Branch Public Library in San Fran-cisco (5,000 sq. feet) and Peter Q. Bohlin’s Ballard Library and Neighborhood Service Center in Seattle (18,600 sq. feet) both cre-ate local landmarks from single-story sheds by topping out with distinctive roofs sup-ported by columnar supports that create grandly scaled but inviting exterior por-ticoes. These roofs amplify the buildings’ scales, and establish repetitive rhythms that play counterpoint to irregularly composed indoor volumes.The Ballard Library’s roof dramatically sweeps upward at one end, its wood purlins visually continuing an outward, upward tra-jectory beyond the walls’ solid planes. This single gesture accomplishes much. It artic-ulates the main components of the build-ing’s basic structure, using them to make a memorable structure. It coaxes precious northern light inside. It imbues the building with a sense of movement and dynamism. The roof’s uneven curve visually and spa-tially dif_ferentiates the library, placed at one end, from the neighborhood service center at the other. Anduni00A0theuni00A0exposed wood purlins symbolically refer to the lush, verdant roof they support, a sustainable tangle of weeds and grasses visible from various angles at the street level.When Louis Kahn, one of America’s greatest architects, designed a library for Phillips Exeter Academy in 1965, he set about the task by probing the institution itself. What should a library be? What is the essence of one’s experience there? He came up with a simple image of an answer: a library begins when “a man with a book goes to light.” Ingleside and Ballard both abide by Kahn’s dictumuni00A0that the library’s central experiential conceit must always be the peaceful world we inhabit when we bring a book, or a Web page, to light. Fougeron and Bohlin use skylights, light wells, inset windows, and window-walls to draw abundant natural light into and through their projects, carefully managing it through ref_lection, f_ilters, screens, and shades to avoid eye-straining glare.Ingleside and Ballard’s portico-shed solution has its shortcomings. Their exte-riors are just a hair more than suf_f_iciently iconic, and their interiors a hair more than generic. In less skilled hands, these build-ings could easily have failed to become dis-tinctive landmarks. An alternative approach is evident in MVRDV’s striking glass barn of a Book Mountain in Rotterdam and MADA s.p.a.m.’s wave-like, ribbony Community Center and Library in Qingpu, China, also known as Thumb Island. Book Mountain and Thumb Island are both command-ing civic icons, but their architects have stretched so far to produce a distinctive form that parts of their buildings suffer from an opposite problem: their interiors pale in comparison with, and perhaps were not helped by the aesthetic imperatives of, their striking exterior conceits.MVRDV’s 110,000-square-foot vitreous Book Mountain, plunked astride a major traf_f_ic thoroughfare in an underprivileged neighborhood, relies upon its transparent, non-ref_lective skin to advertise and shelter a monumental shelf-lined ramp that spirals into a pyramidaluni00A0zigguratuni00A0and climaxes in Ingleside Branch Public Library, San FranciscoP.scH.scO.scT.scO.sc C.scO.scU.scR.scT.scE.scS.scY.sc O.scF.sc J.scO.scE.sc F.scL.scE.scT.scC.scH.scE.scR.scH.scE.scL.scE.scN.sc across from Bal-lard, a drugstore and an of_f_ice building. Book Mountain abuts a highway, and sur-rounding Thumb Island’s lake is a boring run of mid-rise residential blocks. How, in such surroundings, to do the other things the community library must douni00A0 anduni00A0 to make a landmark at once indigenous and distinctive?T.scH.scE.sc B.scR.scI.scG.scH.scT.scE.scS.scT.sc S.scT.scA.scR.scS.sc I.scN.sc T.scH.scE.sc C.scO.scM.scM.scU.scN.scI.scT.scY.sclibrary f_irmament show the way. These are the two new buildings in Washington by David Adjaye, and the Library and Culture Center in tiny (population twelve thou-sand) Vennesla by Helen evenly spaced vertical wooden slats and dif_ferently sized elevated pavilions create sheltered outdoor areas for residents to congregate.Of the interiors of Adjaye’s two libraries, Bellevue’s is spatially more complex, draw-ing users up a lemon yellow staircase and a long, lazy ramp leading from the lobby, to the second-floor children’s area, teen rooms, and classrooms, and f_inally to the quiet, well-proportioned reading room and stacks on the third f_loor. In both projects, mostly inexpensive materials are deployed with rigor and f_inesse. Francis Gregory’s elongated glass diamonds are thickened inside with stained wooden planks that warm incoming light and of_fer places for users to nestle in.Helen practi-cally and aesthetically, they hide and house wiring, HVAC, acoustic insulation, and light f.shortixtures. The greatest surprise comes as the ribs curve in toward the f_loor, where they become all manner of useful things: shelves, reading nooks for adults, low-rise desks for kids, benches, carrels.Here is all a contemporary community library should be. Vennesla’s visually ar-resting pattern of repeating wooden ribs, their uncommon rhythmic arrangement and multiple functions, monumentalize this small building and make it memorably, freshly imagistic. The building gracefully acknowledges its urban and cultural con-text by picking up on the neighborhood’s modest scale as it urges you into its woody, light-drenched atmosphere, invitingly do-mestic, full of variety, and thoroughly Nor-wegian. In the Vennesla Library’s public living room you can be among members of your community, people similar to and dif_ferent from you, and you can be alone.These architects and buildings create a distinctive social experience that only a community library can of_fer. They insist upon the importance of both meaningful social interaction and silence in a cacoph-onous world. They nudge local residents toward a resonant sense of communal identity. They look less to the past than to the present and future. The best ones insist upon the social importance of in-novative, forward-looking, challenging design, and the best of the best demon-strate the importance of contextual spec-if_icity. These are landmarks, bookmarks, and people-marks. Each, in its small quiet way, actively contributes to the vitality of theuni00A0public realm. ○Copyright of New Republic is the property of TNR II, LLC and its content may not be copied or emailed tomultiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, usersmay print, download, or email articles for individual use.



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