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    Different Looks for Books


    This library was designed to fulfill many missions. Its materials, their composition, and their detailing echo an era of architectural enlightenment. The interior spaces are defined with clarity and simplicity. Yet, within the civic grandeur of an important "community" space, patrons are able to explore the wonders of a library.

    Taking advantage of its prominent location at the intersection of two of main roads, the west and south facades of the new library are marked by a rhythm of brick and decorated cast-stone piers, creating a pattern of shade and light. The south facade features an entry plaza, landscaped on both sides, gradually rising to a monumental clock tower that marks the entrance.

    The central piers of the west facade, adorned with sculpture, open to reveal a curved metal roof over the main reference room beyond. The composition of the piers, sculpture, curved roof, clock tower, and entry plaza create a strong image, appropriate for such an important civic building.

    This design and the use of materials also suggest the early 20th-century work of Frank Lloyd Wright, a native Midwesterner. Echoes of Wright's Larkin Office Building and Unity Temple can be seen in the facades' design, as well as shades of the Crow Island School by Eliel Saarinen.

    Inside, a vaulted-roofed main reference and reading room is filled with natural light and articulated materials, including Prairie style-inspired hanging light fixtures. Wood and steel details add to the domestic human scale of the library's interior.

    Balancing Books and Bits

    Libraries are the containers for and disseminators of information. They gather our universes of understanding under a single roof. Even as the method of storage shifts into a digital format, two aspects remain constant. First, the library houses and makes accessible the apparatus of information transmission. Second, the library provides a place of socialization and collectivity.

    Socialization may be in the form of interaction with the librarian whose task it is to handle information and see that it gets to those desiring it, or it may be in the form of interaction of community, either scholarly or casual. The individual alone with either a book or a computer has limits. As social creatures, our need for human interaction is essential and inherent.

    The library building functions as a symbol of our collective belief in knowledge as the sustaining fiber of our culture and of our human civility. Even as the virtual library is being realized, the need for access to resources beyond our means and the need for human contact collectively drive the prediction of the library of the future not to an either/or condition, but rather to a both/and condition — both the electronic, virtual library and the library of space, light, and materiality.

    The merging of the virtual and the physical portend well for the continuing tradition of extraordinary developments in the architectural presence of libraries and development of architectural character yet unfathomable.

    Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, a senior associate with Steven Winter Associates, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek. Merrill Elam, FAIA, is a principal of Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects in Atlanta, Georgia. One of the firm's specialties is library design.

    This article is excerpted from Architecture for the Books, copyright © 2003, available from Images Publishing and at


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    ArchWeek Image

    The Evanston (Illinois) Public Library, by Nagle Hartray Danker Kagan McKay and Joseph Powell, has a strong civic presence.
    Photo: Hedrich-Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    Detail of the main entry at night.
    Photo: Hedrich-Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    The central circulation space of the Evanston Public Library features a mobile.
    Photo: Hedrich-Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    Overview of the light-filled reading and periodicals areas.
    Photo: Hedrich-Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    Circulation desk.
    Photo: Hedrich-Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    The light fixtures and furniture have a Frank Lloyd Wright flavor.
    Photo: Hedrich-Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    Evanston Public Library information area with art glass.
    Photo: Hedrich-Blessing

    ArchWeek Image

    Library at Dartmouth College, designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. Photo by Matt Wargo.
    Image: Images Publishing


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