One of the best things for D.C. in decades

A pow­er­ful style has emerged in de­sign of four new li­braries, even if not in­ten­tion­ally

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY PHILIP KEN­NI­COTT

The District’s chief li­brar­ian, Gin­nie Cooper, says there was no con­certed ef­fort to make the four li­braries built in the past two years all look the same. No ef­fort to pro­duce a mod­ern ver­sion of the old Carnegie-style li­braries, which brought clas­si­cal dig­nity and pa­tri­ar­chal so­lid­ity to the idea of “ li­brary” all across Amer­ica around the turn of the last cen­tury. No ef­fort to “ brand” them like a chain of restau­rants or cof­fee shops, the all-too-fash­ion­able trend in con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tec­tural think­ing.

But with Mon­day’s un­veil­ing of the new Ten­ley-Friend­ship Li­brary on Wis­con­sin Av­enue, it’s clear that a co­her­ent style has emerged, if not in­ten­tion­ally, then or­gan­i­cally, in the four stand-alone, built-from-the-groundup build­ings that have re­placed some of the most ob­so­lete and ugly of the District’s 24 neigh­bor­hood fa­cil­i­ties.

The new branches on Ben­ning Road in North­east Washington and on Good Hope Road in Ana­cos­tia (both fin­ished in April), the Watha T. Daniel Li­brary in Shaw (opened in Au­gust) and the Ten­ley-Friend­ship branch ex­press sim­i­lar ideas about form and ma­te­ri­als. They are clean, sleek, con­tem­po­rary build­ings, with ap­peal­ing ge­om­e­try, and are clad with ma­te­ri­als that sug­gest a mix of in­dus­trial chic and en­vi­ron­men­tal sen­si­tiv­ity. For dif­fer­ent rea­sons, they stand out in their neigh­bor­hoods, so much so that it is as easy to­day to look at them and in­stantly think “ li­brary” as it was when An­drew Carnegie was build­ing his com­pact palaces of knowl­edge in dusty cow towns and as­pir­ing mega­lopoli alike.

That con­trast — the pow­er­ful sense that some­thing new has ar­rived— is one of the best things to hap­pen to the District, ar­chi­tec­turally, in decades.

The Ten­ley-Friend­ship Li­brary is the most ex­pen­sive of the new branches, al­though the ren­o­va­tions of the burned-out Ge­orge­town branch were even costlier. It cost $18 mil­lion to de­sign, build and fur­nish, which is about $3 mil­lion more than the av­er­age for the newly built branches. It dom­i­nates its oddly shaped

polyg­o­nal patch of land at Wis­con­sin and Albe­marle Street NW, a large, rust-col­ored form with an ap­peal­ing and repet­i­tive screen of ver­ti­cal sun­shades along its south and east faces. A small plaza with benches and con­crete planters meets the street, of­fers hand­i­cap ac­cess and helps in­te­grate the build­ing into the slope of Wis­con­sin (the high­est ground in the District, a whop­ping 409 feet above sea level, is only a few blocks away).

The li­brary is di­vided into “front” and “ back” of house spa­ces, with the stacks and most pub­lic ar­eas con­tained in two large, well-lit front rooms clad in glass. A green roof, not ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic but a boon nonethe­less, cov­ers the stacks and a cen­tral, glass-cov­ered spine con­nects the front of the li­brary to the rear vol­ume, which holds meet­ing rooms, of­fices and a chil­dren’s story room.

Long-stand­ing ef­forts to de­velop the site as a mixed-used fa­cil­ity with com­mer­cial space never ma­te­ri­al­ized and de­layed de­sign and con­struc­tion. But the new build­ing has been en­gi­neered to ac­com­mo­date a large new neigh­bor above it. Gi­ant square col­umns have been rel­a­tively well-con­cealed in the back of the li­brary and could sup­port sev­eral floors of new space if the city con­tin­ues to go for­ward with in­tel­li­gent plans to den­sify the real es­tate near its Metro sta­tions. There have been com­plaints in the neigh­bor­hood about these smart-growth plans, but those com­plaints are the worst sort of NIMBYism. Where else should the District grow if not along its his­toric com­mer­cial cor­ri­dors and near its vi­tal pub­lic tran­sit nodes?

The build­ing was de­signed by the Durham, N.C.-based Freelon Group, one of the ar­chi­tec­tural firms that is part­ner­ing with David Ad­jaye to de­sign the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture. Freelon also de­signed the Ana­cos­tia branch, and based on these two build­ings, it’s clear they have some work to do when it comes to fin­ish­ing the de­tails of a build­ing. The out­sides are hand­some. In­side, there are awk­ward mo­ments.

In the Ana­cos­tia branch, a stair­case con­nect­ing the lower, park­ing level with the up­per, main floor of the li­brary cre­ates a large amount of wasted space un­der­neath, enough to have added sev­eral pri­vate read­ing car­rels. In the Ten­leyFriend­ship fa­cil­ity, slid­ing glass par­ti­tion walls haven’t been thought through care­li­braries fully enough. On the ground floor, when opened, the re­tracted glass pan­els block a door (which is used only when they’re closed, but still, it looks stupid). On the sec­ond floor, when closed, they form a gap be­tween the ex­te­rior wall of the li­brary, large enough for a child to slip into. That prob­lem will be fixed, but it sug­gests that some de­sign el­e­ments are more im­pro­vised than strate­gized.

The chil­dren’s read­ing space at Ten­ley is also one of the least ap­peal­ing among the newly built li­braries, a win­dow­less room dis­tin­guished only by some jazzy, semi-spher­i­cal lighted ceil­ing cof­fers. Chil­dren at Ben­ning, for in­stance, can snug­gle into their own semi-cir­cu­lar, nat­u­rally lit fan­tasy space; at Ten­leyFriend­ship, they just get a box.

If the de­signs from the Freelon Group aren’t as pol­ished as the li­braries de­signed by Davis Brody Bond Aedas (its two-floor, glass wedge in Shaw is the stand­out of all the new li­braries), they are much bet­ter than the build­ings they re­placed. And they are dis­tinctly more in­ter­est­ing than most of the ar­chi­tec­ture nearby.

All of the new build­ings, each in its own way, rise above their con­text. Ana­cos­tia is a trim box of glass with a green cap and lu­mi­nous light tower, in a land­scape of for­bid­ding and di­lap­i­dated struc­tures. Ben­ning ex­udes a sense of ur­bane se­ri­ous­ness in a sub­ur­ban-style com­mer­cial land­scape. Shaw com­mands its tri­an­gu­lar lot with con­fi­dence and airy open­ness and of­fers a par­tic­u­larly good view of the city on three sides. And Ten­ley-Friend­ship is a rare, civic struc­ture, built with a free­dom of form that dis­tin­guishes it from a long strip of func­tional shops, su­per­mar­kets and cafes.

There are two more stand-alone new li­braries to open, the Francis Gre­gory branch in South­east and the Washington High­lands branch in South­west, both un­der con­struc­tion, both de­signed by Ad­jaye. And there are two ma­jor ren­o­va­tion projects, in Mount Pleas­ant and Pet­worth, sched­uled for com­ple­tion this year. But with Ten­ley, and with a new mayor and sober­ing new fi­nan­cial re­al­i­ties, there is a sense that an ex­cit­ing chap­ter of civic re­gen­er­a­tion may be com­ing to an end. Cooper would like to do more.

“I’m very concerned about a cap­i­tal main­te­nance bud­get,” she says. And she has a wish list for im­prove­ments, with Woodridge in Ward 5 and the North­east branch on Sev­enth Street at the top. But it’s all up in the air.

But, a few de­tails aside, it has been a re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful cam­paign. Li­braries are rare com­mon ground on the frac­tious map of democ­racy, a place where tra­di­tional ideas of boot­strap self-im­prove­ment meet lib­eral ideas of open ac­cess and equal op­por­tu­nity. Few en­coun­ters with lo­cal govern­ment — a labyrinth of red tape, taxes, frus­tra­tion and long lines un­der flu­o­res­cent lights— feel so good as an af­ter­noon in a well-run li­brary. With­out lec­tur­ing or hec­tor­ing or cheap rhetoric, they build con­sen­sus and com­mit­ment to self-gov­er­nance.

There is an enor­mous cap­i­tal in­vest­ment in the District’s li­brary sys­tem. The over­all im­prove­ment cam­paign, which in­cludes smaller ren­o­va­tions across the city and has cost $120.5 mil­lion since 2004, is only part of that in­vest­ment. There is also a stored hu­man and cul­tural cap­i­tal in its books and other ma­te­ri­als, and in the rare sense of good­will built over decades in the com­mu­nity.

These build­ings might have looked a lot more like Star­bucks or Whole Foods, more slick debit-card mod­ernism mak­ing life blandly com­fort­able. They might have sug­gested an old-fash­ioned pom­pos­ity and grandeur. They might sim­ply have been dull and mean­ing­less. But by de­sign, or ac­ci­dent, or some mix of both, the ar­chi­tects who have con­trib­uted to this project have man­aged to make li­braries that are in their own way ev­ery bit as invit­ing, se­ri­ous and in­spir­ing as the li­braries of yore that helped forge a new mid­dle class out of a Ba­bel of hud­dled masses more than a cen­tury ago.

ALL THEY’RE STACKED UP TO BE: The four new D.C. li­brary branches, clock­wise from top left— Shaw, Ben­ning, Ten­ley and Ana­cos­tia— stand out in their neigh­bor­hoods, yet when you see them you still think “ li­brary.”


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