The public library is one of the greatest inventions of the modern age–a physical representation of the Enlightenment-era belief that citizens should be able to have free and equal access to knowledge. Yet after almost 200 years, the library is undergoing an architectural reinvention, as epitomized by the winners of the AIA’s 2016 Library Building Awards.
Throughout history, rulers have used churches and temples to make their architectural mark. But by the mid-1800s, libraries had become popular legacy structures. The resulting buildings were nothing short of temples to the printed word, filled with monumental spaces and gorgeous detailing. Case in point? The circa-1850 Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève by Henri LaBrouste, whose glorious reading room, ringed with beautiful cast-iron ornamentation, can only be described as church-like.
The libraries that emerged during this era became models for thousands of others throughout the world. Yet, today, the library’s role is evolving from whisper-quiet sanctuary to bustling community hub. And the architecture is evolving along with it. The recipients of this year’s AIA library design awards show exactly how architects are responding to the those changing cultural demands.
For example, the Ryerson University Student Learning Centre, in Toronto, by Norwegian superfirm Snøhetta, features collaborative learning spaces and expansive tiered seating areas, which were inspired by ancient Greek stoas—freestanding covered walkways—and agoras—places for open assembly. With its punchy colors and mixture of public and semi-private areas, it almost looks like the offices of an elite tech company. The same could be said of the study pods within the Billings Public Library, in Montana, by Will Bruder Architects and O2 Architects.
As library patrons change, so do the buildings–which presents a unique challenge for architects renovating aging and historic structures, particularly when it comes to overhauling their telecommunications infrastructure. That was the case for the 1966 Renton Public Library, in Washington state, which the Miller Hull Partnership recently renovated. Spanning a river and built from precast concrete, the building had little room for structural changes to accommodate updated electrical systems–so the architects orchestrated overhead power drops that blend into the rough-hewn sensibility of the existing design. Meanwhile, to reimagined the 1970s-era Lawrence Public Library, in Kansas, the architects at Gould Evans wrapped a continuous reading room around the existing concrete edifice and incorporated gaming zones for teens (!!), a coffee bar, and cubbies for kids, which helped boost attendance 55% after reopening.
These designs go to show that the days of sacrosanct stacks and shhh-ing librarians are definitely over. Who knows what the next chapter of library design will hold–perhaps VR experience centers? In the meantime, spy the seven AIA award winners in the slide show above.