Cambridge Public Library – Be Careful What You Wish For

The main branch of the Cambridge Public Library has been open over a year.  The building has been heralded as a success both as a work of architecture (Boston Globe 11/10/2009) and for stimulating library use (over 4,000 items were checked out on opening day).  As a longtime Cambridge resident, member of the Cambridge Friends of the Library, and ardent library user, I looked forward to our new library and I acknowledge that everything said about the new library is true.  However, after using the library for some time, I find the praise superficial.  The new building is a stunning piece of architecture (William Rawn Associates) with its super-cool double glass curtain wall and other energy conscientious features, and it is set in clear relation to the superb restoration of the original building (Ann Beha Architects).  Yet, no commentary addresses what I see as the obvious question.  What should a contemporary library look like?  Should be a big, bright glass box, and if so, what does that say about our libraries and ourselves?

Three centuries of structures have graced the site of the Cambridge Public Library.

images-5In 1889 the city opened a new library on a tract of land donated by philanthropist Frederick H. Rindge, a Romanesque beauty designed by Van Brunt and Howe that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  It is an elegant pile of rusticated granite, serious in both intent and execution, a public building in the truest nineteenth century sense in that it manages to both humble the individual by its imposing authority, yet ennoble that same individual through democratic access to the knowledge within.  The building has beautifully proportioned rooms with vaulted ceilings and carved woodwork.  The six story stack area with frosted glass floors literally surrounds the reader in a three dimensional world of books.  It also contains inscriptions and entablatures intended to instill moral backbone into Victorian man, including a full listing of the Ten Commandments.  We don’t condone such moralizing in our public buildings today, so the restoration sports a creative scrim that conceals the commandments from everyday view, since a condition of the philanthropist’s bequest that they remain in place in perpetuity.

In 1967 the city opened an addition to the original library, a squat box shunted to the back of the site that included a children’s room on a lower level and miscellaneous space above.  This has been demolished as part of the new library scheme, and all traces of twentieth century architecture have been erased through careful reconstruction of the 1889 exterior.

imgresNow we have the 2009 addition with its gigantic glass wall and clear open spaces.  The new main entrance, not quite on axis with Trowbridge Street, leads to a trio of crisp, taut transaction desks where library staff process returns, provide reference, and check-out books.  The ceiling is uniformly high – sixteen feet at least, and the light is brilliant. An axis of bold red walls and ceiling define a spine that ties the original building to the new and incorporates the giant stairs that connect the principal levels. The addition is full of activity, very busy, very noisy, and unlike any library I’ve ever been in; which I believe, is the whole point.

images-2The library complex is a conscious duality of composition.  Having disposed of the mid-twentieth century box that no one loved, the 1889 original, now referred to as the stone building, represents hierarchy and stability.  It is a collection of rooms, some cozy, some grand, with straightforward circulation links.  Even in areas where the functions have changed, like the former six story stacks that have morphed into the tall and narrow teen area, the stone building remains a collection of discrete spaces with identifiable character.

imgres-2On the other hand, the 2009 building, referred to as the glass building, is open and democratic.  The entire first floor is one large space, unencumbered by spatial definition, and a wide array of activities, from conversations with the reference librarian, to using a computer, to eating a snack, to browsing new fiction, to checking out a book, to tucking into a chair with a magazine all take place in the same large space.

The internal organization of the glass building is, according to Susan Flannery, Director of the Library in comments at an open house for library supporters, derived from the book store experience.  The library is not organized by traditional Dewey Decimal classifications, but rather affinity groups that the library staff considers relevant, so a section called Hearth and Home that includes home repair as well as crafts, and foreign language tapes and travel books are collocated.  Theses affinity groups will morph over time to reflect changes in taste, just as they do at Borders.  As I listened to Susan explain this organization, what struck me was how arbitrary it appears.  True, the Dewey Decimal system of classification is not perfect, but it is universal, it is an actual system with consistency and logic.  However flawed, I prefer my library organized in a manner that I can learn and understand and depend upon, rather than by the staff’s perception of latest trends.

imgres-3As I considered the possibility of collections in constant flux, I realized what I find wrong about the glass building.  An experience that is transparent and universal can not be unique, compelling or memorable.  By creating a space in which anything can occur, the glass building denies the opportunity for specific experience.  The ideal space to meet with a reference librarian is not standing at an open desk along major circulation spine.  The ideal space to do computer work is not in the center of a 6,000 square foot room.  The ideal space to nestle into a magazine is not along a glass wall exposed to every passerby.  By accommodating any kind of activity, the glass building does not accommodate any particular activity very well.

The argument that contemporary buildings take cues from the retail environment is prevalent in our society where consumer preferences are paramount.  As an architect who designs hospitals for a living, and one of the designers of an early medical ’mall’, at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical center back in 1991,  I know that successful retail formulae permeate design solutions for imgres-1virtually every building type.  The parts and pieces of retail design are seductive – simple frameworks that can accommodate quick turnover with generous fronts for advertising and seductive but complicated passageways to draw consumers in and hold them as long as possible.  But why must this building type, designed to enhance consumerism, be the model for so many kinds of buildings?  Are we so impoverished as a society that we can no longer create buildings that aspire to anything beyond layouts that induce people to spend money?  There are good reasons why we don’t inscribe the Ten Commandments on our new library, but why is there nothing we can inscribe in its place?  Do we believe in anything with enough conviction to carve it into our buildings?  A hundred years from now, when it is time to make a wholesale transformation of the glass building, will we value it as much as stone building?  We will bother to find creative ways to repurpose the glass volume, or will the big box be deemed as irrelevant as the 1967 addition; will we demolish it?

The argument for the glass building is flexibility.  I disagree with the contention that open spaces make the best flexibility.  Few spaces were so strictly defined as old-fashioned vertical library stacks, and yet they were transformed into a teen area of great character; more interesting than any of the spaces offered in the glass building.  Similarly, at the open house for library supporters the library set out an array of pies from local bakeries.  Instead of serving dessert in the glass building, or even the transparent connector between the buildings that is lined with café tables, the pies were offered in the stone building’s reading room, a clubby space of excellent proportion that is conducive to the conviviality of sharing a sweet in a way the glass building will never be.

images-1Technology abounds in the glass building; the double glass wall, the automatic shade devices, the daylight sensing fixtures.  Yet, for all its technically sophisticated components, it is old school in its operations.  If the point of technology is to enhance human experience, by freeing us from drudgery to enable deeper, more meaningful activities, why was so little thought given to the process of how people use the library?  These days when I go to the airport I am greeted by a phalanx of ticketing kiosks in front of staffed ticket counters.  The arrangement allows me to use technology if I choose, but also facilitates better interactions when I need to talk to actual people, who are not harried by mundane transactions.  The same concept could easily be applied to a library, where most of us simply need to check in or check out.  Unfortunately the glass building doesn’t offer anything new choices for customer interface.  Three immense desks – check-in, check-out, reference – line the primary circulation route in the middle of the vast space.  I don’t know how the staff tolerates the noise.  True, there are some computer check-out stations out of sight around a corner, apart from staff should something go wrong, and every time I have tried to use them, something has gone wrong.  The result is that the main desk areas are packed with lines of customers loaded with books and CD’s, waiting for a librarian to check them out by the same process we’ve known for generations.  A facility as sophisticated as the glass building deserves a comparable rethinking of its operations as it does of its exterior skin.

images-3When I consider signature library spaces, two contrasting prototypes come to mind, the reading room and the study carrel. The best reading rooms, whether the Bates Room at the Boston Public Library, the main reading room at the New York Public Library, or the St. Genevieve Library in Paris, have impressive volume, walls lined with books below large scale windows that flood the space with daylight, and rows of sturdy tables with individual task lamps.  The rooms are enormous, yet they are clearly rooms.  They have shape and form; they define their human-scaled work spaces; they allow natural light from beyond, yet, since there are no direct views to the surrounding streets, patrons achieve shelter from the outside world.

images-4The study carrel, on the other hand, is an intimate space for one, maybe two people, often lining an exterior wall with a peep window. Kahn’s library at Phillips Exeter is the most famous modern example.  In rare libraries, these spaces coexist, as in the reading room and adjacent alcoves of Trinity College Library, Dublin.  Where are these spaces in the new Cambridge Public Library? The main room in the stone building is a wonderful reading room on a community scale, and the booths in the teen area approximate individual carrels, but in the glass building there is nothing that approaches either.  With the exterior wall given over to technology; the zone that might have provided intimate nooks is instead crisp, clean and transparent.  And with so many things going on in one open space, there is no definition of reading ‘room’.  Distractions abound.

It is fair to say that the City of Cambridge has gotten the library it wished for.  It is an energetic, if overly literal response to the challenge of creating an accessible, open library.  But after a fifteen year planning process and $90 million, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps we should have reached for more.  Reached beyond innovative building technology to uncover innovative operations, reached beyond the simple notion that open equals flexible to create actual, confident spaces.  Rooms crafted with the conviction that our forefathers exemplified in the stone building.  The conviction that well-defined spaces enhance specific experience and, when necessary, can be repurposed with more character than amorphous, ‘flexible’ space.

images-6We should have reached beyond a retail model for our library. A library is not a store; it is the antithesis of a store.  A library does not sell things for people to use and ultimately throw away.  A library lends things to people for free, with the implicit understanding that the items will be used as required and then returned for others to use as well. A library is the ultimate model of sustainability, an endless stream of knowledge recycled again and again through our community.  Could we have reached beyond the retail model to make our library more than open and accessible?  Is it too much to ask that our library also be aspirational?

About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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1 Response to Cambridge Public Library – Be Careful What You Wish For

  1. Chuck says:

    My friend, I always love your insights on architecture, and I daren’t challenge you on some of the more philosophical preferences you’ve offered here. On this building, we may disagree a bit. My reaction is more visceral. I’ve found it to be an airy, usable, sun flooded space. Lively, too.

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