Libraries As Architectural Gems

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Winnie Au for The New York Times

We occasionally hail architecture, and frequently hail libraries as essential to our shared humanity, and when we get the chance to hail both at the same time, the world seems in good order:

Why Can’t New York City Build More Gems Like This Queens Library?

The Hunters Point Community Library is one of the finest public buildings New York has produced this century. But it cost more than $40 million, took a decade and almost died.

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The canyon-like lobby entrance of Hunters Point Community Library. Winnie Au for The New York Times

Against a phalanx of mostly dreary new apartment towers, the soon-to-open Hunters Point Community Library by Steven Holl Architects is a diva parading along the East River in Queens, south of the famous Pepsi sign. With its sculptured geometry — a playful advertisement for itself — it’s even a little like the Pepsi sign.

Compact, at 22,000 square feet and 82 feet high, the library is among the finest and most uplifting public buildings New York has produced so far this century.

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Winnie Au for The New York Times

It also cost something north of $40 million and took forever to complete. So it raises the question: Why can’t New York build more things like this, faster and cheaper?

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The library is full of nooks and corners, illuminated by big windows with sculptured walls covered in bamboo.Credit Winnie Au for The New York Times

Opening Sept. 24, Hunters Point is surely what Queens Library officials and the borough’s former president, Helen M. Marshall, had in mind when the project was proposed more than 15 years ago: a crown jewel among Queens branches, at a singular, symbolic spot facing the United Nations and Louis Kahn’s exalted Four Freedoms Park across the water.

On dark days and evenings, its enormous, eccentric windows will act like inviting beacons of light, attracting eyes and feet. They carve whimsical jigsaw puzzle pieces out of a cool, silvered-concrete facade.

That facade is a load-bearing structure, allowing the library’s liberated interior to spiral some 60 feet upward and outward from a shallow canyon-like lobby, unfolding in elevation as a sequence of tiered desks, book stacks and social spaces. The inside is mostly warm bamboo, with spectacular views.

Outside, there’s a lovely new triangular ginkgo garden, a kind of mini-Place Dauphine, by Michael Van Valkenburgh. For a growing, diverse community, the whole project is an instant boon and a locus of neighborhood pride for Long Island City.

Over the years, it became a poster child for the perils of public architecture in New York, as if the ambition of its design and not the city’s broken bureaucracy was to blame for the library’s extended timetable and escalating budget.

From the start, pea counters in the city’s Office of Management and Budget didn’t see why Hunters Point needed a big fancy library, notwithstanding all the new apartment towers going up, bringing in droves of young families. The pea counters held the project up. Delays raised costs.

I spoke with Chris McVoy, a partner at Steven Holl Architects. (Steven Holl was the library’s architect; Olaf Schmidt, the project architect; Mr. McVoy also played a key role.) Mr. McVoy defended the city, blaming the troubles mostly on complications with construction…

Read the whole story here.

 

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