Sunday, October 06, 2013

Designing Chicago's Library of the Future - Part One: Two Very Different Ideas for a Central Library, in Chicago and Seattle

click images for larger view
 In our digital age, where more and more knowledge is “in the cloud” and local governments veer towards bankruptcy, what does the future hold for the neighborhood library?
In Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's first budget, nearly half of all the layoffs came from the staff of the Chicago Public Library.  Hours of operation at the systems 76 branches had previously been cut from 64 to 48 hours a week.  Rahm pruned it even further, down to 40, with Monday now a closed day.
By this summer, just two years later, many of those hours had been restored, and Emanuel was cutting the ribbon on the CPL's 80th branch library, inside the new Back of the Yards High School, heralding it as the future of the system even as, the following week, he was announcing a major new standalone library for Chinatown. Before we talk about the branches in part two of this series, we're going back downtown for a look at the central libraries that are at the center of the neighborhood networks.
As a word, library is inextricably tied to the idea of knowledge through the physical objects of its conveyance: librarium, Latin for "chest for books", derived from liber, for paper or parchment. Bochord, old English for a horde of books.  Librairie, old French for a collection of books.  And, of course,  adormirebiblioteca, old Italian for the place where students sleep.

So you'd think the death of the book would mean the end of libraries.  Except you'd be wrong, for at least a couple of reasons . . .
A.  The idea of what a library is is in accelerating re-definition.
B.   Like Mark Twain, the book may be destined to expire, but, for the moment at least, reports of its death are highly exaggerated.
Library of Birmingham, England (photo courtesy Mecanoo)
Ambitious new central libraries continue to be built.  One opened in Madison, Wisconsin in 2010.  Ground broke for a new $120 million central library in Austin, by Lake Flato Architects, this past May, and just last month,  a massive new $294 million central library opened in Birmingham, England, designed by the Dutch architectural firm Mecanoo.
1897 Chicago Public Library, now the Chicago Cultural Center
Chicago came to its own terms of what a central library should be a long time ago, back in the 1980's.  The previous decade, the administration of Mayor Richard J. Daley had kicked the main library out of its long-time home in Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge's elegant 1897 people's palace on Michigan Avenue and left it to find makeshift quarters in an old Mandel Brothers warehouse behind the Equitable Building, about where the Gleacher Center can be found today.

After Mayor Jane Byrne considered housing a new central library in Holabird and Roche's terra-cotta clad former Goldblatt's Store on State Street (now DePaul Center), her successor, Harold Washington, committed to building an entirely new building at State and Van Buren, and held a competition for its design.
model, Murphy/Jahn entry to Chicago Central Library Competition
Against striking modernist entries from the likes of Arthur Erickson, Dirk Lohan and Helmut Jahn, the city decided to board the short-lived Post-Modernist express by picking the entry from Hammond, Beeby and Babka . . .
. . . traditionalist both in design and in being not especially curious about where, functionally, libraries might be headed in the future.  (Other than in creating a handsome Winter Garden so separated from the library, itself, that it seemed less a public amenity than a revenue strategy for wedding rentals.)
And so it was left, not to Chicago - the city that prides itself on cutting-edge architecture - but Seattle, to build the first major structure that actually tried to imagine the library of the future.
Designed by OMA's Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, the Seattle Library included everything from avatar guides . . . 
to mixing rooms . . .
living rooms . . .
a continuous book ‘spiral’ . . .
. . . and a meeting room corridor as red as the inside of a beating heart . .  .
The jury is still out about how much Koolhaas and Price-Ramus got right.   The Seattle Library was designed before e-books and the iPad, before Bezos laid waste to Borders, but its design drew upon decades of thinking - through competitions, speculations and, yes, books - about what library architecture could be.  In Chicago, that kind of innovation has been left to places like the Helmut Jahn-designed Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago, opened last year.
Mansueto Library (left) Walter Netsch's Regenstein Library, 1970 (right)
After easing long-time Chicago Public Library Commission Mary Dempsey out the door with his draconian cutbacks, Rahm Emanuel appointed 37-year-old Brian Bannon as her replacement.  Bannon actually got to see the evolution of the new Seattle Public Library firsthand.  A Washington State native, he was a manager at the Seattle Library.  He was mentored by City Librarian Deborah Jacobs even as she worked with Koolhaas and Josh Ramus in developing the concepts behind the Seattle's ambitious new library.  In 2006, Bannon moved on to San Francisco, where he managed that city's 27 neighborhood branches and oversaw $200 million in upgrades.  In 2011, he became the SFPL's chief information officer.

Bannon's technology focus quickly made its stamp on the traditionalist Harold L. Washington.  This past July, in a space previously hosting a viewing area for a video on the library's history,  something called The Maker Lab debuted, offering free workshops, demonstrations and open-lab hours for a 3-D printing facility.
Next . . . Part Two: The evolution of the Chicago Public Library branch and its architecture, and two very different bets on its future.

Read More:

Robots take over - from to Helmut Jahn's Mansueto Library at the U of C

Settling for Less - The Road to Chicago's Harold L. Washington Library

Sleekness in Seattle - OMA's new Seattle Public Library


frank airport said...

The New City Library in Birmingham is quite good (despite the iffy mid-century mannered modernist exterior) but it does a less than stellar job of revealing its purpose in the design. Beyond the flashy interior spaces with escalators and streaming natural light, the building looks less like a library than a department store.

Anonymous said...

Great article Lynn!

For those of you that might be interested in learning more about the Harold Washington Library competition, please check out this short video called, "Design War"

Look for Tigerman's comment on the final design selection which I think parallels this article.

I personally think Jahn's design would have brought more meaningful solution to the library. The current building has to be one of the most uninviting 'public' buildings in Chicago. Actually, it's queit nasty!

Anonymous said...

Goodness, the Jahn entry looks bland. Not much context, connection to the city, or to its purpose as a library on the outside: just another glass and steel box with some cantilevers on the outside. It would have had incredible views from over the tracks though.

Beeby's exterior is amazing: to anyone reeling from how much great architecture Chicago had knocked down in the twenty years previously it must have been incredibly exciting to know that you actually are allowed to build 'em like they used to. Shame the interior is a bit chaotic.

Mike said...

The Harold Washington Library is a fine addition to Chicago architecture. Sixty percent of those who were surveyed in one poll "liked" the building. So likely, opinion plays a large part in how one decides they prefer one architectural style over another.

It should also be noted the main Chicago library is a much larger structure than the main Seattle library. The Harold Washington Library with 972,000 sq.ft. of floor space versus 363,000 sq.ft. for the Seattle Library.

The need and/or desire for a nearly one million sq ft building almost certainly would have affected the design decisions which were made concerning the Harold Washington Library Center.