Nov 6, 2012.
“CRIT> ADJAYE’S D.C. LIBRARIES
Two new libraries by David Adjaye push accessibility, transparency, and sense of ownership to the forefront.
Washington, D.C was once a swamp. Today it stands as an architectural and urban exemplar of austerity and sobering restraint. The outlying residential areas have also been pulled out of the marshes and, over time, developed into sprawl, some of which play host to the demons of modern urban American society: inferior amenities, poor education, and social inequality. Though it doesn’t pretend to solve these problems, DC Public Library (DCPL) has begun to chip away at some of these ills with a program to improve a vital piece of community infrastructure.
Aware that it wasn’t enough to simply build or restore the most dilapidated of the district’s 24 libraries, many of which have not been refurbished since the 1960s, DCPL Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper and the library’s board enlisted designers whom they felt would challenge the status quo. Their libraries had to offer something that a wireless connection and a PC couldn’t. Along with Davis Brody Bond Aedas, Freelon Group, and Bing Thom, Cooper commissioned David Adjaye, the Ghanaian-British architect who flipped the notion of a traditional library on its head with his East London Idea Stores in 2005.
A DETAIL OF THE LIBRARY’S FACADE (LEFT). THE PLAYFUL SKIN AND SKYLIGHTS ALLOW LIGHT TO FILL INTERIOR SPACES (RIGHT).
Unlike the other architects, who were paired with contractors and set to work on a single site, Adjaye and local firm Wiencek and Associates, was commissioned to design two distinct libraries, both in Ward 8, with the same brief, budget, and timeline. The result, from the outside, puts to rest any questions that high-profile architects are as good as their signature styles. Indeed, vocal neighbors have been quick to compare the two libraries as if penned by a different hand. Yet, these polarized forms belie their interiors where Adjaye’s characteristic affection for design is played out.
In the Frances A. Gregory Library on Alabama Avenue in the Fort Davis neighborhood in the S.E. district, material exuberance begins on the outside. Sliced into a lattice of different sized diamonds, the two-story pavilion’s external spandrel and low-E glazing form a skin that simultaneously draws the environment in and reflects it back, like a circus mirror. Designed to “dissolve,” as Adjaye puts it, the 22,000-square-foot building sits anchored like an island between the local school and a playground, but its closest neighbor is the stretch of protected woodland behind it. To say it revives DC’s historic swamp would be going too far, but from the rear verandah on the first floor and the purpose-built plywood nooks in the children’s section on the second floor a less manicured environment than the surrounding neighborhood is easy to imagine.
INTERIOR DETAIL OF THE GREGORY LIBRARY.
It is this subversion of context and play on the suburban site that Adjaye deftly taps into with his D.C. libraries. The squat, shoebox form speaks to an earlier civic architecture that was rolled out in the 1950s and, despite its conspicuous shell and heavy steel cantilevered canopy, the building somehow resonates with the residential milieu. Inside the circus theme is explored further with a frenzy of colors, materials, and reflected geometries that is more akin to an urban pavilion. Underlying this energy though, the library’s civic duty is clearly defined and the materials have been carefully choreographed. As with all of Adjaye’s public buildings, there is a clear and coherent code. Legibility is king.”
Photos: Edmund Sumner