Timely & Timeless | Library Design 2017

The 2017 AIA/ALA Library Building Awards recognize eight outstanding new libraries and renovations.

The 2017 AIA/ALA Library Building Awards recognize eight outstanding new libraries and renovations

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Architect Will Bruder offers Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s words as the guiding philosophy behind the 2017 American Institute of Architects/American Library Association (AIA/ALA) Library Building Awards. In honoring the best in library architecture and design, Bruder, the 2017 jury chair, says AIA/ALA honored buildings that are functional, modest, and respectful of budget, each offering valuable lessons for how libraries can approach their physical presence with relevance.

This year’s eight winners include three remodels—in New Orleans, New York, and Boston—that tell stories of rebirth and demonstrate the ability to respect both budget and balance when faced with a tired space, proving that one needn’t destroy an existing structure to bring about the best design.

While Bruder says all eight winners are exceptional, balancing pragmatism with poetry, he says that two in particular—the National Library of Latvia and the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s (CML) new Whitehall branch—speak volumes both in their space and in their story.

“The architecture of great buildings is like the books contained within the architecture of our time,” Bruder says. “Part of our journey of discovery allows us to look at the world from a different point of view. We see light. We have memory. We view colors. And as we let our minds wander, there’s something more. Isn’t that what knowledge is all about?”

Visit 2017 AIA/ALA Library Building Awards for additional details about these two libraries and the other winners listed below.

Whitehall Branch, Columbus Metropolitan Library, OH

Jonathan Barnes Architecture and Design

Will Bruder rhapsodizes about the beautiful simplicity of CML’s branch at Whitehall, pointing out that a small budget doesn’t equal a banal building. Jonathan Barnes Architecture and Design (JBAD) brought to life what CML envisioned as a library for a new generation, as much community center and tech portal as a place to discover books. This new 19,500 square foot facility occupies three acres on the outskirts of Columbus.

“Whitehall is probably the most important lesson in this competition,” Bruder says. “Even within a small budget and [unassuming] neighborhood, they created a point of pride, low in scale and modest in materials, transparent in that it invites people to want to be there.”

Bruder also takes note of Whitehall’s playful colors, smart central control point, and division into small footprints for different areas. He was especially taken with the architect’s approach to the roof, creating a comfortable, modern, human-scale building that will wear well.

“By tipping the roofs on an angle, [JBAD] put the library into the vernacular of the neighborhood around it, with a fun attitude and big smiles of light coming from its clerestories.”

Opened in 2015, Whitehall was the second of ten branches that CML will rebuild or renovate through 2020 as part of its aspirational building program.

“We’re offering something different in what it means to be a 21st-century library,” says Alison Circle, CML’s chief customer experience officer. “And to have one of our first building projects chosen for this distinction—we’re really grateful.”

The single-story structure’s broadside faces a main road, with façades clad in metal panels complemented by storefront glazing, a standout in the community.

“Libraries need to be loud on the street,” Circle says. “Great libraries don’t blend. They call to people. As we allocated dollars, it was important not to sacrifice that prevailing belief to utilitarian needs.”

Inside, a large rectangular space houses publicly accessible computers, book stacks, a quiet room, and an area named for Carol Snowden, a frugal, dedicated Whitehall librarian who, upon her death in 2008, surprised her colleagues with a $750,000 contribution that was used to build a signature children’s and teen space.

Interior fins and external louvers on the library’s west-facing glass control heat gain. Working together to maximize and reflect natural light, the library’s highly polished concrete floor and exposed structural steel ceilings afford pastoral views of the surrounding green space of lawns, meadows, and planting beds. Bruder and Circle both note the light Whitehall welcomes and emanates.

“It’s an invitation,” Circle says. “People are drawn to light. Through the windows, I can see people I know. Inside, people go right to the windows. It’s purposeful. It glows at night. It’s a beacon.”

Though CML experienced setbacks and challenges, Circle says establishing guiding principles and working through disagreements resulted in the best answer.

“The lesson we learned is that it’s easy to be seduced by a beautiful design, but if you can’t afford it, eliminating what makes it so luminous is unfair,” Circle says. “So we choose to look only at designs we can afford.”


National Library of Latvia, Riga

Gunnar Birkerts Architects with associate Gelzis-Smits/Arhetips

The other entry Bruder highlighted, calling it a contemporary modernist masterpiece, is the National Library of Latvia, the dream of Latvian émigré and architect Gunnar Birkerts, a project 25 years in the making, which opened in 2014.

Latvian legend tells of the Castle of Light, representing wisdom, and the Glass Mountain atop which rested a sleeping princess—a symbol of freedom. This glass-clad mountain of a library is topped with a steeply pitched glasshouse to host special events, a nod to the princess’s sleeping place.

Previously, the library’s collections were spread across six individual buildings. The new library, at nearly 600,000 square feet, represents the realization of a consolidation first proposed in the late 1920s.

“This is a nice bookend paired with Columbus and its modesty. Birkerts has a passion for libraries,” Bruder says. “He plays with metaphor, poetry, and an understanding of his native Riga. It’s heroic, allegorical, and contains a power and conviction about its space.”

Anchoring the new section of the 800-year-old city, the library is a major cultural center firmly rooted in the 21st century. Situated at the terminus of a bridge spanning the River Daugava, it was envisioned by the design team as a place to store, preserve, and make accessible the country’s cultural heritage.

“The nighttime of the city and its reflection on the water says everything,” states Bruder.

A full-wall display of books donated by Latvians as a symbolic gesture soars through the atrium and teases the massive adjacent stack area. The atrium itself, with its central stair, provides connectivity to all the public levels and serves as a unifying element that illustrates the library’s logical organization and circulation.


Boston Public Library Central Library

William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc.

The Boston Public Library’s (BPL) Central Library, once fortresslike and foreboding, is now vibrant with open spaces, great use of color, and excellent spatial planning, representing what a library is supposed to be—welcoming and transparent following the renovation led by William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc.


East Boston Branch, Boston Public Library

William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc.

BPL’s new East Boston Branch, designed by William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc., features a roof that echoes the softness of the ocean and the play of the waves off the harbor, glowing like a lantern at the edge of the 18-acre park that emerged from the city’s Big Dig project.


Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center, New Orleans Public Library


Will Bruder calls the New Orleans Public Library’s Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center “a crown jewel, with a beautifully detailed, well-thought-out plan. The new addition is sustainable with impeccable respect for the original building,” Bruder says of the Eskew+Dumez+Ripple restoration and reconstruction. “It has a similar, almost residential quality that the original library had.”


Allan Price Science Commons & Research Library, University of Oregon, Eugene

Opsis Architecture

The University of Oregon’s Allan Price Science Commons and Research Library remodel and expansion, guided by feedback from the university’s student body and led by Opsis Architecture, gives a sense of spatial connectedness between the old and new that’s almost seamless, providing a quality to the original building not present when it was first constructed.


Stapleton Branch, New York Public Library

Andrew Berman Architect

On Staten Island, the New York Public Library’s Stapleton Branch renovation and expansion by Andrew Berman Architect PLLC illustrates the scale and proportion of a Carnegie library in a clean and elegant way, all done with a very careful hand. “It’s a remarkable project, [on] a very [moderate] budget,” Bruder says. “It’s not a library throwing money at you for effect.”


Varina Area Library, Henrico County Public Library, VA

BCWH with associate Tappé Architects

In Virginia, the Henrico County Public Library’s new Varina Area Library, designed by BCWH with Tappé, offers a romantic idea of farmlike shapes with a contemporary twist—functional, dramatic, playful, and fresh. “With a series of pavilions that emerge and cascade down the landscape, the design’s simple palette and forms evoke an assemblage of tobacco barns,” the award profile explains. “Inside...support for collaboration is abundant, while quiet spaces that foster concentration and creativity can be found throughout.”


Denice Rovira Hazlett (denicehazlett.com; @charmgirl on Twitter) is a feature, profile, and fiction writer

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