‘Reading Room’ Checks Out 24 Architecturally Significant Libraries in the West and Beyond

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Reading Rooms cover.

Reading Room: New and Reimagined Libraries of the American West, by Lara Swimmer (photography) and Laura Raskin (words). Forward by Marcellus Turner. Artifice Press, 208 pages, $34.95, click to enlarge.

“Libraries represent our most fundamental form of social infrastructure. They are places of inclusion, of common ground—public meeting places that level age and class,” writes Seattle-based architectural photographer Lara Swimmer in an introduction to a new tome that pairs her photography of design-forward, award-winning book depositories with accompanying texts written by former RECORD editor Laura Raskin.

Divided into three sections—An Architecture of Reinvention, an Architecture of Change, and an Architecture of Adaptation—Swimmer and Raskin’s Reading Room: New and Reimagined Libraries of the American West showcases a total of 24 new and recently renovated regional branch libraries located across 12 states (predominately but not exclusively Western states). Below are three of the singular libraries, with select photography and full excerpted text, featured in Reading Room. All were built or renovated within the last decade. Because this is the West, there’s a focus on projects that frame and connect with the dramatic landscapes that surround them, including a vast state park within Southern California’s Colorado Desert, a glacier-formed, mountain-ringed valley in the south of Alaska, and the salmon-rich Cedar River watershed in Washington’s Puget Sound region.

Borrego Springs Library

borrgo springs library.

The main entry plaza, which connects to the Anza-Borrego state park. Photo © Lara Swimmer

Client: City of San Diego / Location: Borrego Springs, California / Size: 13,165 sf / Date; 2018 / Architect: Roesling Nakamura Terada Architects (RNT Architects) / Contractor: BNBuilders

The small desert town of Borrego Springs is a Dark Sky Community, committed to preserving its night sky through an outdoor lighting ordinance, education, and citizen support. There isn’t even a stoplight there. This dedication inspired RNT Architects to create the town’s one-story, 13,165-square-foot library, completed in 2018.

Borrego Springs Library.

Astronomy motifs inform the library’s
connection to the dark sky community. Photo © Lara Swimmer

The building serves as a civic center and a social space to empower the community, while integrating its engagement with the celestial skies and unique desert ecology. The library is adjacent to California’s biggest state park, Anza-Borrego, so it was critical that the design complement the landscape and provide sweeping views. A “star walk” connects the building to the park, while concrete markers at the Polaris Plaza show the relationship of the planets to the sun.

Because of Borrego Springs’ intense climate and fragile ecosystem, the County of San Diego was clear about sustainability goals: achieve LEED Gold and participate in the County’s zero net energy initiative. The building envelope plays a significant role in this. The library stretches out under a wide roof, and concrete piles and caissons elevate the structure, which allows wildlife to take refuge underneath to escape the desert heat. This light-touch approach aligns the building with the sloping desert floor and allows water to flow in its natural path during flood events. The design team also incorporated solar shading, daylight harvesting, and on-site renewable power production.

A steel skin on the southern elevation, turning rust red as it weathers, helps blend the building into the landscape. The northern elevation is a light smooth stucco, a beautiful contrast. The roof serves as a shading strategy, reflects the desert floor, and accentuates the iconic mountain profiles.

Borrego Springs Library.

Windows frame views across the desert floor to the mountains. Photo © Lara Swimmer

Inside there are bookstacks for adults, children, and teens, a story circle, study rooms, computer lab, staff-support spaces, café, conference rooms, and community rooms, with all design elements tying back to astronomy. As RNT Principal Ralph Roesling says, “Everything about the site has been thought through with respect to recreaion, dark-skies astronomy, discovery, and places for imagination.”

Recognitions
2020 US Green Building Council, Gold LEED Certification; 2019 AIA San Diego, Architecture Merit Award; 2019 AIA San Diego, Energy Efficiency & Integration Award; 2019 Orchids & Onions San Diego, Architecture Orchid Award; 2019 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE),San Diego Chapter, Project Award; International Living Future Institute, Living Building


Mendenhall Valley Public Library

Mendenhall Library.

The main entry portal under the titled roofline. Photo © Lara Swimmer

Client: Juneau Public Libraries / Location: Juneau, Alaska / size: 20,600 sf / Date of completion: 2015 / Architects: Hacker & NorthWind Architects / Contractor: Dawson Construction

In Alaska, landscape is the great unifier. For the Portland-based Hacker Architects, this was a guiding design principle for the Mendenhall Valley Library in Juneau, with its impressive surrounding mountains. As Hacker Principal Laura Klinger says, the library’s design had to appear almost indigenous to its location. “It couldn’t sit anywhere but that spot.”

Mendenhall Library.

Parent and child patrons in the children’s section with flying book-birds overhead. Photo © Lara Swimmer

Completed in 2013, the new quietly powerful library replaced an outdated and undersized branch in a strip mall, providing spaces for an expanded collection and promoting community engagement. Its new location posed some challenges, however, sited as it is on a busy thoroughfare, with schools, an aquatic center, and other public buildings nearby. Hacker positioned the building in a grove of spruce trees that act as a quiet space and a buffer, while framing views to the forest and Thunder Mountain. A generous entry plaza welcomes the community, particularly local children, teens, and school classes.

The rectangular low-slung building features a tilted, wing-like roof plane that floats on a glass clerestory, opening the spacious, column-free stack area to daylight and allowing users to gaze on the surrounding views. Deep eaves minimize direct sunlight, and earth-toned brick reflects the dark, wet, and rocky mountains beyond.

The 20,600-square foot library is tailored to current needs while remaining flexible for the future. A foyer creates an active space separated from the main library areas and a place for casual seating. A staff assistance point allows for easy monitoring of all areas of the library.

Mendenhall Llibary.

Bookstacks lit at dusk, with a view to the neighborhood and mountains. Photo © Lara Swimmer

The plan provides a variety of unimpeded spaces. The uplit wood-clad ceiling is a pure, soaring element, uninterrupted by hanging lights or ductwork. Specialized areas for teens and children allow for discrete zones of noise and silence, while meeting and study rooms face the road, and a quiet reflective hearth sits at the building’s northernmost point, its chimney expressed on the building’s exterior as a sculpted, tapered form.

Recognitions
2017 US Green Building Council, Gold LEED Certification; 2016 AIA Alaska, Honor Award; 2016 AIA Alaska People’s Choice, All Around Most Favorite Project


Renton Public Library

Renton Public Library.

Moonrise over the library, with the new open planning visible from outside. Photo © Lara Swimmer

Client: King County Library System / Location: Renton, Washington / size: 19,718 sf / Date of completion: original 1966, renovation 2015 / Design & interior architect: Miller Hull Partnership / Contractor: Construction Enterprises & Contractors

When Renton Public Library opened in 1966, it was an engineering showcase. Designed by Felix M. Campanella and David Arthur Johnston, the landmark building straddles the Cedar River in Renton, Washington. Overlooking the railway, park, and water—a renowned salmon habitat— the library is well loved by the community, which fought to preserve it and won.

Renton Public Library.

Glass-disk artwork overhead in the children’s area. Photo © Lara Swimer

By the time the library closed in 2014 for the renovation, the exterior was failing. It did not comply with contemporary energy codes and was not fit to withstand seismic criteria. Nor could the systems meet the demands of a 21st-century library, heavy in power and data usage. But once a controversial plan for a replacement library downtown was nixed, architects from Seattle-based Miller Hull found a way to seismically and programmatically bolster and update the building.

The goal was to celebrate and emphasize the bridge structure. “The library was previously like a suburban bank building that happened to be crossing the river. It didn’t capitalize on the river as much as it could,” said Miller Hull Associate Maaike Post. The renovation maintained the iconic bridge superstructure, but introduced light, energy efficiency, accessibility, and a 21st-century services upgrade.

New cross bracing and raw aluminum siding honor the structure and gesture to the region’s manufacturing legacy, while the removal of interior walls and the ceiling simplify the plan and enable users to enjoy an airy space for programming. Energy-efficient floor-to-ceiling glazing enhances the connection to the river and landscape, and the resulting view.

Renton Public Libary.

Structural trusses reinforce the building and form a zigzag lattice across glass facades. Photo © Lara Swimmer

In a nod to Renton as the home of Boeing, aircraft cabling and steel connections are exposed as power and data drops from the opened ceiling, anchoring the computer hubs and study tables. This has allowed the library to vastly increase the number of power and computer locations—critical for community members without personal internet access. The use of a pioneering shelving system that integrates display shelving, digital download stations, and seating facilitates the cross- pollination of physical and digital materials. The library is once again a beloved asset that reflects its location and the community it serves.

Recognitions
2017 AIA Seattle, Honor Award; 2017 AIA Washington Civic Design, Honor Award; 2016 AIA/ALA Library Design Awards, Honor Award;  2016 AIA Northwest and Pacific Region, Merit Award; 2016 Chicago Athenaeum, American Architecture Awards; 2016 Governor’s Smart Communities Award, Judges’ Merit Award; 2015 The Architect’s Newspaper, Renovation, Honorable Mention

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