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6 beautiful libraries in D.C. by famous architects

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All designed by David Adjaye, Phil Freelon, or J. Max Bond

The Shaw (Watha T. Daniel) Neighborhood Library
Photo via D.C. Public Library, Paul Rivera

The Smithsonian Institution’s newest member welcomed nearly 1.3 million visitors in the first six months, and the wait for tickets at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has become as well-known as the historical objects inside. Even the café received commendations as a James Beard Award semifinalist for best new restaurant.

The full architectural team for the NMAAHC included David Adjaye, Phil Freelon, and the late J. Max Bond. In addition to conjuring a space that’s already a signature of the city’s skyline, these three men created a constellation of municipal buildings in all four capital quadrants.

Washingtonians and visitors alike can explore the work of these renowned architects and designers by looking for their neighborhood libraries—buildings that have garnered a myriad of prominent architectural design awards and LEED sustainability seals.

“Libraries are fabulous things,” says Ginnie Cooper, who served as D.C.’s chief librarian from 2006 to 2013. Below, see six libraries imagined, funded and constructed under her tenure as well as designed by David Adjaye, Phil Freelon, or the late J. Max Bond.

The Anacostia Neighborhood Library

Opened in 2010

Phil Freelon, managing and design director at Perkins+Will, found a troubling sight in Anacostia.

He says, “The existing building had been boarded up for years. They were operating out of a double-wide trailer. We couldn’t build on that location.”

Freelon and his team fashioned the replacement into various pavilions unified by a lime-green roof that absorbs bits of the blue sky behind it on a clear day. That structural choice allowed for a building that didn’t overwhelm the location, which serves as a transition point from commercial to residential areas.

“We wanted there to be a beacon of sorts,” he says, “a focal point visually for the neighborhood.”

Freelon says working in D.C. offers both an honor and a responsibility, but an understanding of the city’s Neoclassical proclivities didn’t hinder him from pursuing libraries created for today and tomorrow.

“We’re looking forward, being progressive about the use of materials, energy conservation, recycling, sustainability—these building forms and materials reflect those goals and those principles.”

The Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library

Opened in 2011

Tenley-Friendship encompasses a much smaller footprint than Anacostia, but none of the six libraries present colossal spaces.

Even so, the world-class designs still rank as some of the busiest library locations in the city according to Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director for the District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL).

“You realize how important they are as anchors in their neighborhoods,” he says, “and you wouldn’t know from the number of books that get borrowed.”

DCPL has emphasized construction and renovation projects that feature ample areas for community gatherings and public meetings, a nod to the shifting role of libraries as an institution.

“It used to be we were sort of the only game in town for information,” says Reyes-Gavilan. “It didn’t matter so much what we looked like. You just needed to build this transactional box.”

He notes that the programmatic ideas for what these new libraries would offer were assembled by Cooper and her team a decade ago. That forethought meant projecting how the internet and other technologies would change the library system.

“I go around a lot saying libraries are not their buildings, but I usually say that juxtaposed against this other saying that I’ve got, which is: the space is a service.”

At Tenley, the architectural elements drive upward instead fanning outward, as at Anacostia. Rust-orange fins protect the reading room from direct glare but don’t obstruct views from the inside. There, exterior elements echo, with the same vivid color on walls that receive linear shadows from overhead windows.

“It’s an urban setting and an urban scheme,” says Freelon. “The transparency at the lower level invites people in. The natural light, transparency, and sustainability is important. Both projects share that. Each of them fits their social, physical and cultural context quite well.”

The Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library

Opened in 2012

Those same contexts also influence David Adjaye’s pair of libraries.

Adjaye says he wanted the Francis A. Gregory library to achieve a delicate harmony between the built environment and the natural forest, where the tips of the trees almost touch the “highly sensitive” structure, as he called it.

“I wanted to make a building that was going to somehow respect and reflect that but also be a new civic building that would register its own identity,” says Adjaye.

Two types of glass offer both reflections and windows. In this way, the library becomes a kind of philosophical box.

“It challenges you,” says Adjaye. “It disappears and appears. It asks you questions about what you think is weight or not. What is reflection in front of you? What is reflection behind you?”

The building transforms into a metaphor that illuminates its function.

Reyes-Gavilan notes that the various architectural forms these six libraries take also demonstrate the customization of library services.

“It used to be that libraries could be very prescriptive,” says Reyes-Gavilan. “More or less what we thought every library needed and more or less uniform across the city.”

An updated paradigm means that though commonalities will always exist—internet access, children’s storytime, and yes, books—the communities, themselves, now dictate the needs of the building and the services that an individual branch provides.

“Hundreds and hundreds of other activities that are all sort of under this umbrella of learning or civic engagement, they’re taking place in libraries,” says Reyes-Galivan. “These beautiful buildings underscore, ‘hey, this is the place to be.’”

The Bellevue (William O. Lockridge) Neighborhood Library

Opened in 2012

Adjaye, principal at Adjaye Associates, recognized that he could express in physical forms the power of this idealogical change about where libraries fit in a digital society.

Although the depository purpose of a library has diminished, “what we’ve done over 50 years is to ritualize that way of working,” he says. “This is very beautiful, to go to a place of knowledge and to socialize around knowledge.”

That leaves the question of how a building can transcend its mission.

“So then what is the residue of this container?” Adjaye asks. “The building becomes a vessel of the human experience and an encouraging place for multi-generational interaction and a kind of cohesion about civility.”

Interactions occur in various pods that extend from the adjacent hillside at Bellevue. As in the other libraries, broad architectural ideas trace themselves onto the smallest interior details. For example, the chunky cutouts in chairs mimic the library’s outline, an effect that doubles when the sunlight creates corresponding shadows from the seats.

The capsule design creates volume with what Adjaye calls “a diaphanous inside-outside relationship with its surroundings and landscape. You get these fantastic vantage points and vignettes that are really rich.”

As Reyes-Gavilan points out, an ideal modern library inspires and promotes curiosity.

“What all these buildings do really well — by their very nature they’re playful,” he says.

That exuberance entices visitors, a significant influence for a static structure.

“For me,” Adjaye says, “the buildings have to become these jewels that put you out of your home or your retail mall or whatever to see it as a special ritual space. That is a space you go to to engage in knowledge and sharing.”

Benning (Dorothy I. Height) Neighborhood Library

Opened in 2010

Such community-oriented objectives formed the basis of Benning, a building that filters from its namesake road and flows down a hill into a vast asphalt parking lot for a shopping center.

“Not the prettiest thing,” says Peter Cook, referencing the swath of blacktop. Cook is a design director at Gensler and a former principal at Davis Brody Bond, where he worked with the late J. Max Bond to design the Benning and Shaw libraries.

“But if you actually spent time down there, you found that’s where a lot of community interactions happened. How could we turn our back on that space?”

Understanding such nuances led Cook and the rest of the team to devise a library with meeting rooms that fed into that parking lot. Books and computers were situated level with Benning Road. The library doesn’t offer the instantly recognizable structural force of some other branches, but it still captures the imagination with an open floor plan and giant murals that add life to the lengthy stairwell wall.

“It could be this sort of utilitarian warehouse of books, but it’s become so much more than that,” Cook says. “There’s not a whole lot of project types that give you that opportunity to see how children and adults can be transformed by doing good work.”

Cooper, then chief librarian, worked with the architects and her own team to incorporate community feedback into the construction plans. The world-class design teams who signed on for the projects, however, arrived with a bit less intentionality and more coincidence.

These projects launched amid the global recession, and public-sector commissions like libraries provided a stable source of income.

“We couldn’t hire them now, no matter how much money we had,” she says with a laugh.

Shaw (Watha T. Daniel) Neighborhood Library

Opened in 2010

The half dozen libraries had similar budgets, but that didn’t lead to lazy designs. Cook says he’s proud that he and Bond avoided a formulaic response to the various sites.

“They’re very different because they needed to be very different.”

The Shaw library occupies a triangular island in the D.C. streetscape, which means no other building will encroach on the location.

“It’s this jewel sitting in the center of the neighborhood,” says Cook.

The same can’t be said of the structure the current gem replaced.

“I’m not sure it had a whole lot of fans,” Cook says. “It was a very severe looking building. We said, ‘Let’s turn this building inside out and make it very open and visually accessible.’”

Cook’s team also considered the demographics of library areas when they designed this compact building.

For example, the children’s area sits on the ground floor so moms don’t have to push strollers into elevators. A lower ceiling scales the space to young bodies and translates into fewer steps to the upper floor.

Interior decisions as mundane as bookshelf end-caps continue the architectural conversation with metal grids of round holes that mimic the perforated screen on the exterior, a wedge-like sail that imparts movement.

“To be able to build something in Washington, D.C., that is a library, that if done well, gives back to the community, enriches that space and creates a warmer and more giving public realm, frankly, makes me feel good about what I’ve done,” says Cook.

Cook now has several connections to the locals and the library system. Not only did his parents attend Dunbar High School, but his mother also worked her first job as a librarian at the Carnegie Library.

As D.C.’s first free public library—also unsegregated by writ of its benefactor, Andrew Carnegie—this strikes the type of monumental, intimidating impression so common in the capital.

Yet more welcoming words were carved into the back of the stone benches that form the exedra, the curving wings that guided patrons of all races toward the main stairs: “A University For The People."

“They are places that anybody can come to,” Cooper says of D.C.’s libraries, architecturally famous and otherwise. “The public library belongs to the public.”