Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Salt Lake City Central Library is absolutely incredible

Through an odd confluence of events, this is the third trip I've made to Salt Lake City over a 15-month period, and I had no idea before that there is so much interesting stuff here.

Yesterday was the first time I visited the Central Library--I try to visit libraries when I travel but it's harder to do depending on my travelmates, but the meeting I attended was held in one of the library's well-appointed conference rooms so I had no excuse to not explore.

I spent a couple hours looking around the library after the meeting, because there was so much to see and do.

"The new building embodies the idea that a library is more than a repository of books and computers - it reflects and engages the city's imagination and aspirations. The east side of the block was preserved as a peaceful urban green space."

-- from the SLCPL website

The building opened in 2003 and was designed by Moshe Safdie, so it looks like all his other buildings (including the hulking ATF building in DC), and apparently it's a smaller version of the library that Safdie designed for Vancouver, BC.

The design won architectural awards from the AIA (see this entry from Archidose) and Library Journal selected the Salt Lake City Public Library  as the Library of the Year in 2006 (article).

Unlike other Safdie buildings I am familiar with, this one is permeable-all glass (because the old Central Library was dark, one of the key elements the public and librarians wanted as part of a new library was lots of light), with incredible views from all sides--SLC, bracketed by mountain ranges offers great scenery.  (As AECOM livable transportation planner Ian Lockwood said as an aside, "the best cities are constrained.")

Architects use the term "program" to refer to what is supposed to happen inside a building and their design of a building is intended to achieve the client's intent.

This building "overachieves" --  the program of the building as achieved by the architect and the program(ming) done by the Library, the openness of the Library architecturally and the openness of the Library system and its staff to serving the public truly stand out.

The design/program of the building

The building has the outer curved wall that is a signature element of Safdie designs.  Here, the outer wall on the ground floor has "retail" shops including a salon, coffee shop, labeled ATM and phone room, the Library Store (I spent more than $30 there), an art gallery, and a "retail display shop" for the SLC Planning Department.

Outside of the library, the wall extends beyond the building (a Safdie signature) and fronts "Library Plaza" which has an outdoor gathering space, water feature, and plaza.  The outside "retail" spaces are used by community organizations including one of the city's NPR radio stations, KCPW, and a fantastic community writing support organization, the Community Writing Center, which functions as a community outreach initiative of the Salt Lake City Community College.

The outer wall and the Library building are connected by a fantastic atrium, which functions more like a traditional arcade (see for example Nickels Arcade in Ann Arbor) and the arcade form likely influenced this design.

The spaces above the ground floor of the outer wall are set up as intimate reading areas, organized like college library carrels but without walls, with comfortable reading desks, nooks, and occasional soft seating (couches and chairs).

This design and feel is carried into the main library building, where the edges of each floor are mostly set up with reading desks, seating four people.

I've been reprimanded by guards at the DC Public Library and the Chicago Cultural Center for using electric sockets and ordered to remove my plug.  At this library, the desks have been outfitted with electric outlets for patrons to use freely.

And another "judging indicator" on libraries I use now--whether or not they have a scanner available to the public--Salt Lake wins.  I asked about this in the Washingtoniana Room (the specialized local history section at the DC Public Library) and I was instructed to use my camera and photograph the pages I wanted.

They also have kept their periodicals and have some volumes that go back to the 1820s.

There are central information desks staffed by librarians on all floors and rather than having a big sea of computers--providing access to computers increasingly dominates library programming these days--computing areas are integrated into the general flow of the floors.

There is an auditorium, and movies are regularly screened, with some daytime programming for seniors and children, and with a variety of other events scheduled there.  There is an art gallery inside the Library as well as a history display area on the first floor (the current exhibit is about Abraham Lincoln) and a separate children's library with a craft room (art days are scheduled on Wednesdays) with a daily story time.  Another cafe is located on the first floor inside the Library building, in addition to the cafe present in the outer wall.

The library has a partial "green roof" -- all the rage these days -- but here the roof is open to the public and of course this being Salt Lake City, offers fabulous views.  Among other elements of the roof "program" are four beehives.  The Mayor gives the honey to visiting personages, rather than giving a "key" to the city.

This building proves that modernist design doesn't have to suck

And I guess this library and the Seattle Central Library designed by Rem Koolhaas both demonstrate that "modernist" library buildings, unlike DC's Central Library designed by Mies Van Der Rohe, don't have to be lousy experiences. (There are problems with the Seattle Library but for the most part it functions quite well despite various gestures of modernist architecture.)

That's because, as Archidose stated in its review of post on the building, Safdie has "create[d] a variety of scales of spaces, from small and intimate reading areas to the grand spaces required for navigation and the recognition of the library's role in city life."

A contrast to DC

While DC is lauded for the branch library expansion and renovation program, and separately the City Council passed legislation and provided funding so that many of the branch libraries will be open on Sundays, improving the Central Library (the Martin Luther King Jr. building) has languished for many years.

I was struck by how open the the Salt Lake City Public Library is, the Library Journal article's title "Salt Lake City Public Library -- Where Democracy Happens" summarizes the feeling, but also describes the way that the Library System works and is focused on the public (not unlike Seattle and their multi-year expansion of the branch library system as well as the central library, e.g., "Seattle Public Library celebrates "Libraries For All" in neighborhoods across the city" from the Seattle Times).  From the LJ article:
SLCPL has established itself as the center of town, the community gathering place. The city block it occupies, now called Library Square, is where “citizens practice democracy,” say library staffers. Of course, it serves as the “cultural warehouse” for Salt Lake City and Utah, as Safdie said, though he quickly added that it was also “a community of readers, a place where people interact with the material and each other.”

The library has even transcended those ambitious expectations and gone beyond being the “placemaker” Safdie intended. It has become a crucial center for the city, the agency to start and sustain the celebration of diversity and the deep and difficult effort to understand, enjoy, and learn from all that has changed Salt Lake City.

The library mission came from the people of Salt Lake City. Through focus groups and meetings, they told library planners that they wanted more than a new building. It was time for the city and its library to be redefined. People wanted their fellow citizens and the world to recognize that the community had changed greatly over the years, that it is now culturally and ethnically more diverse—a self-examination spurred by the Olympics.
When I was talking to a librarian she described all the various meetings with different stakeholders to work out the "program" for the building, and those meetings included librarians!

That's not what happened with DC's abortive "library master planning process" back in 2004-2006 (see for example this past blog entry "John Hill -- DC's new 'Reading Teacher'" and this entry, which also has links to many other entries on the topic).

It was very constrained.  And the negative stakeholder reaction to proposals for a new central library were engendered by the process and the call for a smaller library with fewer functions.

The Salt Lake City Public Library main branch illustrates the point I make about libraries serving as expanded cultural centers (discussed in these blog entries "The DC Central Library, the Civic identity and the public realm," "Central Library Planning efforts and the City Museum, how about some learning from Augusta, Maine ... and Baltimore?" and "The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example"), whereas such functions were to be stripped out of a slimmed down library in DC.

So that proposal never went anywhere, but the new initiative is not much better, if not worse.

Rather than having a public library and expanded cultural facility and a grand "Library Plaza" type space that serves a variety of community organizations (for example, like how what Salt Lake City does with co-locating community serving organizations in spaces at the library, I've suggested that libraries like the Foundation Center and Provisions Library in Washington could be given free space at an expanded main branch library in return for offering greater access and programming to the public), instead the latest proposals and momentum are moving towards expanding the library building but renting out the space at market rates to for profit organizations "to raise the money to renovate the library" because "we don't have funds to do it" even though the city has been running a $400 million annual surplus for the past few years...

This was touched off by a panel from the Urban Land Institute, paid for by the DCPL, but given a particularly narrow scope of work that they didn't deviate from.

In Salt Lake City, they revere and exalt their Main Library as a foundation of their civic and public realm.  In DC, we no longer do so.

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At 12:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry but I still regard architectural modernism as bereft and as ignoring the functions of the other allied fine arts- these buildings while "interesting" and " neat spaces" have little thought for beautiful architectural sculpture or fresco paintings as was the case in all great architecture down thru the millenia. The modernsit starchitects all think of themselves as " sculptors or painters" without really understanding that these are separate full time jobs better left to specialists- the greatest architecs in my view are the ones that act as "flagship" to these allied arts and cultivate "stables" of artists to go along with their projects much as movie directors use the same acvtors and actresses. We need to be thinking more of color and art in our buildings- not just "space" planning as these starchitect guys obsess over. I am not a fan of Koolhas at all- I think his buildings are ugly as $hit.He is just as wreching as Mies with his flat rooofed boxes of steel.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I'd be curious for you to check out that Library... It's very convincing.

At 3:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I WAS impressed by the Chicago Public Library as it has beautiful REAL art that is integral to the structure unlike modernism which treats all art as an afterthought if that. I do not like what the architecture schools teach or promulgate in this country. They are producing generations of anti urban and anti aesthetic monsters. Yes I am sure this building has a good array of functions it is not a vatican or a US Capitol- it is also not NEARLY as good as the original Library of Congress in which the greatest artists were brought in at huge expense to build it- and it shows - and is a really beautiful monument as well as functioning building of the first order. We need to go back to this grandeur. We have completely lose it- although Chicago has done a remarkably good job. ray Kaskey's sculptures are fabulous on that structure.

At 3:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the USA is not Somalia or Haiti- if we can afford to build freeways we can build beautiful grand buildings with fantastic art - we have no excuses at all except lack of imagination and lack of willpower. And we are incredibly lazy to boot.

At 10:25 AM, Anonymous BeyondDC said...

I think it's a great library. FYI, the Vancouver library is an exactly duplicate. I'm not sure which came first.

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