From Glass Gem To Bunker: A D.C. Library's Sad Shift
When the District's troubled library system started tearing down decrepit old branch libraries with the promise of snazzy, modern replacements, part of the justification for the demolitions was that the old buildings were outmoded, expensive to operate and eyesores that repelled potential visitors.
Certainly the library in Shaw in northwest Washington fit that bill. Long derided by neighborhood residents as a post-riots bunker that said volumes about the city's attitude toward its citizens, the library was a forbidding example of Brutalism, the school of architecture that specialized in unbroken expanses of concrete, literally walled off from the people the building was meant to serve.
So when D.C. libraries director Ginnie Cooper presented Shaw residents with plans for a translucent, glass-encased, jewel of a new library, the reaction was generally enthusiastic. (The National Capital Planning Commission, generally no friend of creative or unusual design, loved it.) Here's that original design:
But the celebration didn't last very long. With the cost of construction materials soaring by the minute, and with the libraries facing yet another budget crunch, Cooper has had to go back to her architects and seek revisions. And so this is what the residents of Shaw have now been presented with as the new plan for their library. Gone is the open and transparent feel of the place. Gone is the sense that this is a library that is welcoming, safe, and representative of a real commitment to the neighborhood.
Most shocking and most disappointing: The new plan bears a remarkable and disturbing resemblance to the much-hated old Watha T. Daniel branch building that was demolished four years ago. Note the slit windows, and the similarity between those prison-like windows and the windows in the latest version of the plan for the new library.
(Photos courtesy of the D.C. Library Renaissance Project.)
Shaw activists are up in arms over the changes. When the revised plans were made public, it became clear that "The new library had devolved to the 'bunker' feel of the old library,
without explanation," says Robin Diener, director of Ralph Nader's D.C. Library Renaissance Project.
Hold on, says Cooper, arguing that things aren't quite as bad as the architect's rendering make them out to be. "It's true that the skin of the building is no longer translucent," she tells me. "But the idea was that this might have a better chance of standing the test of time." The kind of glass that made up the building's skin in the original plan--channel glass--is expensive and doesn't hold up well, Cooper said. (Though it is popular among library architects in an era when library planners put a premium on openness and transparency in building design.) D.C. library officials estimated the cost of the channel glass in the Shaw project to be at least $1.5 million. "Channel glass is difficult to fabricate and install well - each curved piece is joined with insulation blown into the channel," Cooper says. "Because of this difficulty, this cost will likely increase."
Despite all that, Cooper says Shaw residents' objection to the replacement of the glass exterior with fabricated metal panels "is an excellent point and one we agree with wholeheartedly." She says she has asked the architects to come back with another revision, looking at alternative materials that might recreate the glowing look of the original plan, though not necessarily with glass.
Cooper says the move away from glass was driven in part by the increased cost of the project stemming from the discovery that Metro has both a tunnel and a large vent under and abutting the library site, making it more expensive to do construction there.
As for the slit windows, Cooper says she shared the concern that the new drawing makes it look as if the library is seeking to pay homage to the prison-like windows on the old Watha T. Daniel Library. Not true, she says. "Few of us are eager to recall the old building," Cooper says. "These windows are much, much larger than the old windows." (As she wrote to Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alex Padro, "The smallest of the windows are nearly four times larger than in the windows in the old building.")
The tall, narrow shape of the windows stems from the fact that "we librarians often want to put bookshelves up against walls, so we often end up with that long shape to windows."
Cooper says she has asked the architects to come back with more windows.
"Our goal is to have a jewel in the neighborhood," she says, with as much glass as possible. A new plan is expected to be presented to Shaw residents at a community meeting Sept. 4. Construction is still slated to begin before the end of this year, with reopening of the library in spring of 2010.
By Marc Fisher |
August 27, 2008; 8:51 AM ET
Previous: Could Mark Warner's Virginia Juggernaut Hurt Obama? | Next: Inside NoVa's Most Evenly-Divided Neighborhood
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: iamprepared | August 27, 2008 9:28 AM
Posted by: johng1 | August 27, 2008 9:49 AM
Posted by: johng1 | August 27, 2008 9:52 AM
Posted by: Rob Goodspeed | August 27, 2008 9:57 AM
Posted by: ex-shaw | August 27, 2008 9:58 AM
Posted by: Cooper No | August 27, 2008 10:36 AM
Posted by: Cooper Yes | August 27, 2008 10:46 AM
Posted by: Art | August 27, 2008 11:18 AM
Posted by: ML | August 27, 2008 11:21 AM
Posted by: mary | August 27, 2008 11:34 AM
Posted by: Friend of Monty | August 27, 2008 11:34 AM
Posted by: Anonymous | August 27, 2008 11:40 AM
Posted by: JoeSchmoe | August 27, 2008 12:17 PM
Posted by: DC Voter | August 27, 2008 12:19 PM
Posted by: 10th and O | August 27, 2008 12:22 PM
Posted by: CW | August 27, 2008 12:22 PM
Posted by: PC Police | August 27, 2008 12:33 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | August 27, 2008 1:51 PM
Posted by: Cooper NO.NO.NO | August 27, 2008 2:21 PM
Posted by: LOL | August 27, 2008 4:03 PM
Posted by: Anonymous | August 27, 2008 5:04 PM
Posted by: Huh | August 27, 2008 9:33 PM
Posted by: Freddie Mick | August 27, 2008 11:25 PM
Posted by: Tom T. | August 28, 2008 11:18 AM
Posted by: DC Library Dynamos | August 28, 2008 2:19 PM
Posted by: librarian | August 28, 2008 4:15 PM
Posted by: Lex Pk | August 28, 2008 8:15 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.