some observations about library architecture

The 10th anniversary of SF MOMA prompted an article in SFGate today [1/13] about MOMA’s architectural values, functionality as an art museum, and fitness into the SOMA neighborhood. I particularly liked the opening observation:

A big problem with architectural criticism is that buildings often are treated as if they are inert works of art, sculptures on a grand scale. The day they’re unveiled is the day they’re best judged.

In fact, even the most meticulous creation is a work in progress that reveals itself over time and is defined in part by its surroundings[.]

This is a common problem with library architectural projects, which too often result in designs of grand buildings that are architectural plums, but are not well-suited for their function as a library. The designers and library committees treat the library building as an inert work of art rather than as a functional building. They do beautifully on opening day and arouse many oohs and ahhs but over time the staff and patrons are forced to live with and adapt to features that are essentially library-unfriendly.

For instance, my pet peeve in modern library architecture is the giant atrium. So many public libraries do as SF Public Library (late 90s) has done — create a large atrium running up & down the center of the building. They make a lovely space for civic entertainments but the big open space is not functional for a library — not for creating reading / study space, not for archiving books, not for providing access to information. It wastes energy, creates a draft, carries sound, and while it’s entertaining sometimes for people on the top floors to people-watch, it invariably renders the first floor under the atrium inhospitable and useful only as a passageway. Huntsville, Alabama’s public library (mid-80s) did likewise, but in a smaller library the sins are proportionally more minor. Chicago Public Library‘s giant new downtown main branch (early 90s) managed to take the cold feel of the atrium and extend it even to its non-atrium spaces.

The SF MOMA article author, John King, also rants about SF MOMA’s atrium. I’m even more uninformed about museum architecture criticism than library architecture criticism — I’m not even a Power User of museums — but it seems to me that while the functionality of the museum as warehouse-for-art [or whatever] might pose a similar problem, the overall function of the museum as an artpiece in itself might make the atrium more justifiable in the museum context than in the library context. This is not to say that libraries shouldn’t be works of art in themselves; they should; but the art should flow with the functionality, not against it. It may be that atria in art museums flows with that functionality in a way that it doesn’t flow with the functionality of libraries.

Some cities of course get their library architecture right. Berkeley Public Library (Berkeley, CA) rehabbed its downtown library, retaining the lovely exterior. There is an atrium, but for only three floors, it’s tolerable, and better done than San Francisco, still allowing the library to retain some warmth. [Berkeley Public also has one of my favorite branch libraries, the North Branch, which has an exceptionally warm and friendly design.]

Boston Public Library married its beautiful, historic old facility to a modern new facility (90s?). While the new facility isn’t beautiful,* and has, yes, the dreaded atrium, the BPL atrium is reasonably functional, or at least, minimally disruptive. The atrium itself is relatively small. And in a city like Boston, the front area/entryway necessarily becomes a passageway rather than a habitable space, because of the drafts and chills thru much of the year. So the passage-ness of the space is less wasteful than it might otherwise be. More importantly, by coupling the old facility with the new facility, BPL managed to marry form to function. The old library now contains reading rooms and research and reference collections. You can appreciate the historical architecture and design elements while working at the slower pace that the functions designate. On the other hand, the new addition contains the higher-traffic programs — the circulating collections and the lively programs (children’s, literacy, friends of the library). On a minor technical note, BPL didn’t succeed in matching floor heights between the old and new sections — hardly any project does — but it’s certainly not as bad as at some libraries I’ve often used [University of Kentucky main library in the early 1990s; University of Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law, Library in the early 2000s, with its North Addition].

The new Seattle Public Library (2004), from what I’ve heard, has some interesting features that attempt to break new ground in librariness — for instance, the book stacks on the inclining ramps. Over time we’ll see how library/user-friendly and workable these features really are.

* I may just be prejudiced against 20th century architecture, which is just so extraordinarily bleak and geometric and barren of fun design elements. The designers did a few nice things — I like the curvey arches at the entrance, and while it’s a bit warehouse-like, it’s an elegant warehouse. Some photos.