Greater Greater Washington

Architecture


For David Adjaye's DC libraries, seeing is believing

Among all of the new DC public libraries, the Bellevue and Francis Gregory branches east of the river have the strongest design. Without sacrificing functionality and accessibility, they put sophisticated works of architecture in historically underserved neighborhoods. But photos don't tell the whole story. You have to go see them yourself.


Francis Gregory Library in Hillcrest.

Designed by British architect David Adjaye, who's also designing the Museum of African-American History and Culture, the libraries are a reminder that it's possible for a work of world-class architecture to also be a comfortable third place.


Francis Gregory library atrium. Photo by the author.

When the first renderings of the new libraries were published, I was unimpressed by them. But after a day-long excursion to see all of the libraries built under the tenure of library director Ginnie Cooper, I have to admit that I was surprised at how brilliant Bellevue and Francis Gregory are.

Unlike the new libraries at Benning, Anacostia, Tenleytown, and Shaw, which were designed by Freelon Group and Davis Brody Bond, Adjaye's libraries don't have an immediately recognizable, iconic look.

They're both fairly straightforward. Bellevue Library is a box pierced with skylight shafts and a few large "pods" in front. Francis Gregory library is a diamond-patterned box, filled with blocks to divide the space. What distinguishes them is how Adjaye and associate architect, Wiencek+Associates, divide the spaces with layers of books, glass, and glossy surfaces that produce a warm, flexible environment.

Both libraries use glass to interact with the street

Glass is an important part of Adjaye's recent projects, like the Moscow's Skolkovo School of Management, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, or the Whitechapel Idea Store in London, which like Bellevue and Gregory is a library in an inner-city neighborhood.


The side of the Francis Gregory in winter.

Adjaye doesn't use glass to erase a building's form like so many modern office buildings. Although the architects typically want the building to be transparent, minimizing the difference between outside and inside, this effect only works under the right light. Otherwise it's a mirror or it's so dark you can't see the building. This is why we see so many depictions at the twilight "rendering hour." Dusk is the only time when, because the interior of a building is as bright as the exterior, the glass disappears.

Instead, Adjaye uses what are usually undesirable reflections to multiply the sensation of the building's surroundings. Viewing the Gregory Library from dead on, the alternating diamonds of gray mirror and clear glass playfully juxtapose reflections of the neighborhood with views of the interior.


Interior and exterior. Photo by the author.

Moving to the side, the reflectivity of the clear glass increases, and the diamonds, the walls, and the building disappear more and more into its wooded site, leaving a steel canopy soaring above a symmetrical forest. In the back, the building disappears. In the front, inside and outside are superimposed on each other, reminding viewers that both are public spaces.


The Bellevue library has a strong street presence. Photo by Eric Fidler.

The Bellevue Library has a stronger street presence, but it still plays with openness and transparency. Its glass facade creates a relationship between the interior and the street. Adjaye placed windows to provide clear views out to the sidewalk. Outside, glulam beams, a kind of timber, help screen the interior and heighten the transparency by cutting glare on the windows.

Like a sidewalk cafe, Bellevue's front room "pods" become wonderful places to observe city life while feeling comfortably separate from it.

Inside, reflective surfaces create a sense of place

Inside the Bellevue Library, the wide-open spaces are divided by different-colored sheets of glass that reflect and distort views. Black glass hides the bathrooms on the first floor, while upstairs, dark yellow glazing hides the glare from a skylight. Through the glass partitions you can see to the other end of the library, through several sheets of glass. However, because each pane is also reflecting its surroundings, you see transparent images of the space you're in, with other reflections giving readers the feeling of being in an intimate, private room.


Well-lighted desks are arranged so readers can watch the street in moments of pause.

Dark, reflective walls also add to both libraries' sense of place. They use the well-worn trick of implying space behind the wall's surface, "opening it up," while avoiding the hokiness of an optical mirror. They bring light in from outside, and mix it with the colors of the room they contain.

Both the dark walls and the translucent glass let readers sense their surroundings, but loosen the figure of reflected individuals. A viewer can perceive a presence without having to worry about staring or even looking up. To have that kind of casual awareness while focusing on a book felt very relaxing.


Lights in pentagonal arrangement imply the presence of rooms, even if there are no walls.

However, the most astonishing use of reflective surfaces is in the story room at the Gregory Library. Physically, it's just an oval room bounded by walls of vertical lumber. Every other piece is removed at a child's eye level and the resulting slots are painted gloss black. Within the wall reflect in the trees, books, and structure through drawing in street scenes. As you move around, the angles change and the reflections move and blur, like you're animating them.

See buildings in real-life, not renderings

Neither the Bellevue or Gregory libraries have a "wow" moment. They are very much about the experience of individuals in the spaces the building creates. Because the architecture relies on a person's physical presence, it's hard to understand through a photograph. In fact, the images I've seen are less beautiful than the ambiance of the building.


Early rendering of the Bellevue Library from DC Public Libraries.

In 2013, architecture is seen mostly through carefully curated images. An architect's largest audience is often on the web, who will consume and discard architecture through images. Renderings, because they look almost real, can be the most misleading. This emphasis on the photograph feeds back on itself to aggravate a fixation on "iconic" buildings, whose memorable images can be telegraphed around the world and recognized instantly.

But the people who are most affected by a work of architecture, whether positively or negatively, are the ones who live with the building. Dramatic architectural gestures are only so relevant to the creation of great urban spaces. Often, they're detrimental to to the sense of place.

More than anything, Adjaye's buildings remind me that to understand a work of architecture, you have to visit it. The basic architectural elements of space, program, and material are so interrelated that the quality of the buildings is impossible to capture. Don't trust me, and don't try to form an opinion during your lunch break. Go east of the river and see for yourself.

Cross-posted on цarьchitect.

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He writes on architecture and Russia at цarьchitect

Comments

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Nice work, Neil. Thank you for this article.

by John Muller on Jun 28, 2013 2:05 pm • linkreport

"Adjaye uses the undesirable reflections to multiply the building's surroundings...playfully juxtapose reflections of the neighborhood with views of the interior."

Why employ walls of glass if they produce 'undesirable' reflections? (Rehtorical question) Plus it's fine if it's the only glass building, but one get's a hall of mirrors effect if all buildings are reflective glass.

"More than anything, Adjaye's buildings remind me that to understand a work of architecture, you have to visit it."

Agreed, but will they hold up in time or will they be another lost opportunity to create a lasting and lovable neighborhood landmark? My quess is the monotnous argyle fenestration, glass box reading room, and garage like entry will age like that other cutting edge library, the MLK.

by Thayer-D on Jun 28, 2013 2:06 pm • linkreport

I don't like most glass buildings, Thayer. That's why I wrote this article.

I'd visit it. Most buildings are less attractive than their representations. These were not.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 28, 2013 2:21 pm • linkreport

What is undesirable about the reflections at Francis Gregory? Well kept houses? Treed park land? The reflections actually add to the building's beauty regardless of season.

by Cynthia Jefferson on Jun 28, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

I'm not an architect or art critic but I have to say these don't look like designs that will age gracefully.

by Alan B. on Jun 28, 2013 2:49 pm • linkreport

Cynthia, sorry, that's just bad writing on my part. I mean that usually the random, faceted reflections in glass walls are an unwanted distraction.

Here, like you say, the architects used the reflections to add beauty. That the Gregory reflects the street in front of it engages with the neighborhood too.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 28, 2013 3:00 pm • linkreport

This line confuses me - I'm not sure what you're saying here:

"Within the wall reflect in the trees, books, and structure through drawing in street scenes."

Also, I think it's odd to refer to these neighborhoods as "inner city," as they're both (especially Hillcrest) suburban parts of the city.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jun 28, 2013 5:28 pm • linkreport

I always get nervous that buildings like this won't get the funding for their higher maintenance needs.

Also, I hope every desk/chair space has a power outlet. It would really neat if a few workspaces had extra monitors for laptop users.

by Duncan on Jun 28, 2013 6:30 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Jessie Warner on Jun 29, 2013 9:25 am • linkreport

As an owner of a local commercial office real estate portfolio, I can say with certainty that buildings of this design, while efficient in terms of HVAC consumption, they cost an absolute fortune to maintain.

Typical yearly maintenance costs of new commercial construction of this size 22000 sq/ft, would be about 4 bucks a sq foot. This design, with its fashion forward glass with unique bonding and sealing systems ( that were also ungodly expensive to buy and jnstall mind you) the useless but "trendy" timber slats etc will likely cost 6 to 7 bucks a sq foot to maintain. At 22K sq/ft that's an additional 44k to 66k a year, just in basic maintenance. And let's be honest, that design is going to age horribly.

I love libraries but we as tax payers don't do ourselves any favors by building ourselves architectural boondoggles that cost us a fortune just to keep open. I would point to the MLK library downtown as a perfect example.

by BikerFrancois on Jun 29, 2013 11:01 am • linkreport

What do you mean "of this design?" Are you talking about the glass, or the glu-lam.

And why do you say it will be efficient HVAC-wise? The gregory is only about 50% fenestrated, which is higher than optimal, but way more efficient than than most commercial buildings in DC built since the 1950s.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 29, 2013 1:35 pm • linkreport

You build boring buildings and people complain. You build unique and interesting buildings and people still complain! Jeez.

I really like the majority of the new libraries. And we can afford the maintenance... Come on.

by h st ll on Jun 29, 2013 11:12 pm • linkreport

Instead of boring or unique buildings, how about beautiful buildings, especially if they meant to last? They could be unique or familiar (I could care less), but my guess is if they strove for beauty, thier appeal would last longer, and a building you love is a building you maintain, even if it's a little pricy.

What constitutes beauty you say? That's clearly in the eye of the beholder, as I hope the architect of these librarys thinks they are. History shows us that many a different styled buildings are today thought of as beautiful, even if they are out of fashion.

Beyond performance, many architects worry about things that don't seem to matter to most of the public, and I suppose in many cases the public's opinion shouldn't matter. Some architects dismiss the whole notion beauty, as if it where somehow unimportant or a product of chance. This cynical approach does nthing for their reputation, further diminishing thier potential as advocates of change.

These librarys certainly strive to be noticed and as such could very well become the neighborhoood landmark that great neighborhoods pocess. Time will tell, but I have a feeling they will never look better than they do today. All the more reason to visit them in person.

by Thayer-D on Jun 30, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

Instead of boring or unique buildings, how about beautiful buildings, especially if they are meant to last? They could be unique or familiar (I could care less), but my guess is if they strove for beauty, thier appeal would last longer, and a building you love is a building you maintain, even if it's a little pricy.

What constitutes beauty? That's clearly in the eye of the beholder, as I hope the architect of these librarys thinks they are. History shows us that many a different styled buildings are today thought of as beautiful, even if they are out of fashion. But beyond performance, many architects seem to worry about things that don't matter to most of the public, and I suppose in certain cases that's justified. Some architects even dismiss the whole notion beauty, as if it where somehow unimportant or a product of chance. This cynical approach does nothing for their reputation, further diminishing thier potential as advocates for change.

These librarys certainly strive to be noticed and as such could very well become a landmark that great neighborhoods pocess. Time will tell, but I have a feeling they will never look better than they do today. All the more reason to visit them in person.

by Thayer-D on Jun 30, 2013 12:35 pm • linkreport

What about the children!!?

Do kids like them? Do they want to spend more time in them? For many of them, these libraries are probably the nicest places they have access to, public or private. I don't want to get into an argument about whether or not architecture changes behavior, but this is one case where "think of the children" applies. In this case I wouldn't care if it looked like a McDonald's, if a kid likes the place, sees it as an important landmark in his/her community, and sends a general message that reading and learning are important, then that would be a modest accomplishment.

by spookiness on Jun 30, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

Ugly, impractical looking buildings, that don't relate at all to their surroundings. Part pf my opposition to replacing MLK is my suspicion that DCPL will just build something that's more inflexible and difficult to maintain. Watha Daniel already has obvious problems--door that don't work properly, materials that lack durability.

by Rich on Jun 30, 2013 4:35 pm • linkreport

I had no idea that architects were so miserable. The comments are not just critical, they are mean-spirited. What is this really about? A young black guy gets a contract & you people are livid! Affirmative action you say? What about the affirmative action you have had all you life for being a white male. I am quite disgusted with your lot!!

by New York Psychiatrist on Jun 30, 2013 7:22 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by New York Psychiatrist on Jun 30, 2013 7:30 pm • linkreport

I'm a fan of these buildings. Great article, Neil.

by MLD on Jul 1, 2013 8:17 am • linkreport

oh no! modern architecture! oh the horror!

by wd on Jul 1, 2013 9:41 am • linkreport

The hyperlink to the Bellevue Library on Atlantic St SW, DC, is erroneous. It shows a library with an address on 110th Avenue in Bellevue, near Seattle, WA.

by WB on Jul 1, 2013 3:09 pm • linkreport

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