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On Books (Summer 2014)

For many years it has been clear that the way people read, think, learn, and teach is being redefined, and libraries everywhere are at the forefront of such change. Ian Baldwin’s “Big Glass” article challenges readers to think about libraries’ archi­tectural identity, now and into the future. The traditional role of libraries simply as a place with books and furniture is being transformed. In Ray Bradbury’s words, a library is indeed an “outlet to the universe.”

At the Boston Public Library, where a major renovation is under way in the Johnson building at the Central Library in Copley Square, the bpl team has joined with the community to think about our own transformation of library services; it is our services that drive the design of our space.

Through in-person meetings, blog posts, social media, and other conversations, the questions that emerge are wide ranging: How does a public library’s physical building welcome people of all ages and from all walks of life? How does the program balance protection of unique, rare materials while fostering unfettered access to scholarly works? How can the design of a children’s area nurture brain development and the joy of reading? How prominent are digital images and interactive art displays? These discussions have informed the progression of the building’s architectural identity.

As the transformation of the Central Library progresses, the most important partnership is the one forged among the architect, the library, and the public. As Baldwin writes, the local library is about the “oft-praised commodity, ‘community.’”

President, Boston Public Library

In “Big Glass,” Ian Baldwin observes a trend in contemporary library design, where the curtainwall is used as “exterior code for an interior devoted to open participation and infor­mation access.” He draws a parallel between the use of glass and corporatism, and implores the public library to “distinguish itself from the common and thoughtless abuses of Big Glass by further articulating the spaces deployed on the inside.”

When architects talk about glass in the contemporary context, we often use terms like “open,” “transparent,” and “welcoming” and, in contrast, words like “corporate,” “cold,” and “mean.” Regardless of how it is described, glass has become a fallback to suggest something contemporary — a departure from what’s already there or a new beginning on a blank canvas. Working in historic contexts and attempting to break the traditional mold by doing something glassy and transparent has become a bit of a trope. It’s easier to imagine a glass box than it is to design something original that both responds to and departs from its context. In truth, glass is not necessarily welcoming. For most of the day, it’s reflective, and at night, it puts the inhabitants on display.

This doesn’t mean that glass is bad, but the way architects typically talk about it is fraught. There are also many examples of welcoming and transparent buildings that do not rely entirely on glass or use it differently. Maybe the issue is that, as architects, we’ve bought into Bruno Taut’s exclamation too wholeheartedly, without looking at the implications critically: “In the distance shines our tomorrow. Hurray, three times hurray for our kingdom without force! Hurray for the transparent, the clear! Hurray for purity! Hurray for crystal!” (Down With Seriousism! 1920).

Library design should first take into account the strategy and mission of the library. How will the library be used by patrons? Is its role one of civic prominence? Openness? Quiet retreat? All of these?

Design solutions, including volume and material, must serve these values first. Each project, while not immune from trends in library design, is unique and must be treated as such.

Shepley Bulfinch