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Big glass

The public library's evolving typology

In Providence, a glass cube springs from the wine-colored bricks of a small neo-Georgian building and squares up to the street. Behind the curtainwall is a deep void lined with book stacks; in front is a cherry-red sign announcing a local library.

What else could it be, this floor-to-ceiling volume of glass halting the march of vinyl-sided domestic boxes along a residential street? The library is not much bigger than the neighboring houses, but its façade is a billboard announcing openness, modernity, and a world beyond the triple-decker.

The playwright and New Yorker journalist S.N. Behrman, growing up in an immigrant family in Worcester, wrote of the “exaltation” he felt going downtown to the public library, “an outlet to the universe.” Ray Bradbury told The New York Times in 2009, “Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities . . . . I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

As an outlet to the universe and an inlet for all, the public library is the typology that most clearly asks: What is the architecture of civitas?

A gallery of public libraries

The public library lays first claim to the mythical power of American self-improvement, so it suits that it is a New England invention. The athenaeums of Boston and of Newport and Providence, in Rhode Island, were among the earliest subscription libraries, and the first, the Library Company of Philadelphia, was founded by Benjamin Franklin. The world’s first true public library, tax-supported and free to use, belongs to Peterborough, New Hampshire (1833).

H.H. Richardson’s libraries in Woburn, North Easton, Quincy, and Malden, built from the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s, are instantly recognizable for their Romanesque features: rough-faced ashlar masonry, semicircular arches, and asymmetrical massing. Richardson’s interiors created a formula that established the library as a distinct architectural type: An offset entry leads into an expansive reading room with a large hearth, with books stored in alcoves off a two-story barrel-vaulted hall.

These libraries were “free” but not quite “public,” birthed by the philanthropy of Richardson’s clients rather than the coffers of their towns. Historian Dell Upton has analyzed them as an example of “elite self-assertion,” where donors’ portraits surveyed the reading room from above the fireplace, and the patron had to ask a librarian (“the donor’s surrogate”) to dispense books from closed stacks.

Like two other civic typologies emerging from the 19th century, the museum and the public park, the library assumed a lead role in acculturating the middle class and uplifting the working class. Chiseled into the north façade of McKim, Mead and White’s Boston Public Library is this: “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.”

Thus the public library was understood as nothing less than a civic monument. Whether Romanesque brio, Beaux-Arts bombast, or concrete Brutalism, the library projects the self-image of the time and place it was built to serve.

This explains why a town like Bolton, Massachusetts, proud of its traditional New England appearance, reaches back to the eclecticism of the 19th century for its new library addition featuring a steeply pitched, red-tile roof. It also explains why Foxborough, enlarging its Brutalist Boyden library, favored an unabashedly modern, glass-fronted staircase to celebrate the ascension to the new volume, floating above a parking area. (Both projects were designed by the same firm, llb Architects of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.)

The postwar library’s struggle with architectural identity mirrors Modernism’s larger struggle with monumentality. Concrete’s plastic and monolithic qualities made possible big, muscular 1960s works like William Pereira’s Geisel Library in San Diego and John Johansen’s Orlando Public Library in Florida. But intense formalism of that sort was rarely attempted in libraries of smaller scale before it passed from fashion.

Float glass provided a far less aggressive link between modern materiality and the library program. No less a Brutalist than Eduardo Catalano, in his 1970 Charlestown branch library, folded a concrete mantle around a two-story glazed façade fronting the reading room within. Here the transparent curtainwall, synonymous with the bland corporate conformity of the office tower, scales down to announce the last redoubt of public space, at least, the only noncommercial interior public space available to all.

The typology of the library and the technology of the curtainwall continue to evolve in tandem. As glazing gets better at handling ultraviolet light and water ingress (conditions that may be obnoxious to humans but are fatal to books), the glass plane becomes a common — if not default — solution to lighting and lightening the library. The nighttime glow from within expresses perfectly the library’s status as a neighborhood focal point. In the era of Big Data, library architecture is more and more one of Big Glass.

As a façade strategy, of course, Big Glass is hardly limited to libraries. It is everywhere in contemporary design. But as steward both of worldly knowledge and democratic neighborliness, exterior transparency matches the library’s symbolic and programmatic functions. The curtainwall also satisfies the Modernist brief for interiors: technologically advanced, spatially rich, and suffused with light.

William Rawn’s library branches in East Boston and Cambridge place large-scale glazed façades at the edge of an open lawn to unambiguously announce a civic beacon. Cambridge’s façade, two separate layers containing a three-foot-deep airspace, is also an advanced environmental solution to provide fresh air and control glare.

The same firm’s four-story glass façade for Northeastern University’s College of Computer and Information Science, by comparison, is contemporary cliché. Big Glass runs continuously from the busy, broad Huntington Avenue side to the back, where the unrelenting glass all but overwhelms a small plaza. The curtainwall reveals the meanest of atria: a triple-height corridor backed by a blank wall, no civic room to contain and counter the city’s reverberations. The only thing inside this private display case is the to-and-fro of students and staff.

The local library is the factory for the everyday production of that oft-praised commodity, “community.” It is where the same space must contain a knitting circle of middle-aged women, Facebook-surfing preteens, and an author reading to a small audience. Libraries now see community service as their central role, with book lending only one component. Richardson’s libraries, in their paternalistic way, acknowledged “community” by incorporating picture galleries and small museums. Today it is the demand for meeting space, not the incursion of digital media, which has reduced the stock of print in some libraries.

Public libraries are not about books (nor e-readers). They are about space. The space to read, browse, daydream, run into neighbors, go online, attend events. The glazed expanse serves, then, as exterior code for an interior devoted to open participation and information access: Big Glass marks Big Community. But the curtainwall is still, in Columbia University historian Reinhold Martin’s phrase, a mass medium carried over from midcentury corporatism. It remains for the public library to distinguish itself from the common and thoughtless abuses of Big Glass by further articulating the spaces deployed on the inside.

The best example I’ve come across is Helen & Hard Architects’ town library in Vennesla, Norway (ah, for Scandinavian public-sector budgets!). The central hall tunnels through a city block, from a side street to the main public square, fully glazed at both ends. Structural and service-carrying ribs articulate this two-story volume, suggesting the inside of a whale. At their bases, the ribs become bookshelves and shelter reading desks in the gaps in between. It’s a brilliant arrangement that bridges individual repose and grand civic gesture in a single space, and for that it looks like a sketch for the future of civitas.  ■