There are many definitions and uses of the word free.
free to do as you please
free to go
free of charge
The list goes on…
What in the physical environment is free? The answer is…not much, especially these days. In the U.S., we have a right to free air and, for the most part, free water. And in theory, we are guaranteed that this air and water is safe to breath and drink through the Clean Air Act (1963) and the Clean Water Act (1972), although sadly, we have seen that in different parts of the country air and water are not free nor are they safe to breath and drink.
Natural light is free and a codified right. In NYC for example, the residential building code mandates legal light and air. In other words, you have a right to light.
Education is free. Every citizen can send their child to public school from kindergarten to grade twelve. Although education is free, it is important to note that it is not always equal. The quality of education often differs depending on where you live. And many school districts suffer deficits in educational support spaces such as libraries.
Public Space is free. A large majority of public space is outdoors in public parks, recreational facilities, civic space and open urban spaces. Civic buildings are free for public use such as the post office, the courthouse, city hall and other government buildings. And then, of course, there is the free library. Somehow, in the midst of our contemporary commercialized cultural, the library remains as a free space to sit, read, check out a book and have access to free wifi and information….a place to learn. Moreover, the public library often functions as a supplemental education space to schools and universities.
This studio begins with an examination of free civic space and the politics of these spaces. Our study will go beyond the simple distinction between public vs private to include a deeper awareness of embedded hierarchies, visibility as well as formal and informal definitions of space. Where are these public spaces located? Who are they serving? How are these spaces designed to be welcoming and hospitable as a means to promote inclusion, equity, diversity, and accessibility?
The goal of this studio is not to become experts (necessarily) on the history and politics of civic space, but rather to recognize that as architects, we are responsible for the politics inherent in the spaces that we create. How a building is organized, positioned, designed and structured has the power to promote changes to social culture, challenge norms and conventions and to invite a more open democratic civic space.
This studio will focus specifically on the architecture of the free library as part of a larger campaign for public education, access to information and as an urban public building that houses a collection of free books and varied public programs.
During the course of the semester, we will study the history of the library with particular emphasis on the emergence of the public library. In the 19th century in many parts of the world, the popularization of book publishing changed libraries. Books were no longer produced in limited quantities for an elite readership. The ability to print large volumes of books changed not only the scale of the library, but also changed the spatial organization of the library, the direct access to the collection and the role of the library as a public amenity. In addition, the public face of the library changed as well as the adjacent urban spaces around the library.
One of the very first libraries to resemble the modern public library was Henri LaBrouste’s Bibliotheque Saint Genevieve, Paris (1850). This library provided access to a wide range of publications to a broader population of people that historically did not have access to private book collections. This was not only due to the increase in book publishing, but also to the advent of gas lamps which allowed the library to stay open in the evening hours, giving university students and the working class public access to books and a quiet reading space.
Only three decades later beginning in the 1880s, the Scottish-American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie began his campaign of free libraries throughout the U.S. as well as the U.K., Ireland, Canada and many other parts of the world. He located these libraries in small urban centers and underserved neighborhoods as well as in large cities. It is important to note that during the period of segregation in the U.S. where African American citizens were denied entrance to public libraries, Carnegie circumvented the law and financed separate libraries for the African American population. In addition to opening up the library by making libraries more available, Carnegie also made the stacks themselves open and accessible to the library visitors (previously, visitors would reference the catalogue, and then make a request to the librarian to locate a book from the collection). Like his contemporary, F. W. Woolworth who changed the shopping experience forever by making his merchandise accessible out on the store floor for customers to browse, Carnegie similarly allowed library visitors to browse the book collection. With over 2500 libraries built over the course of nearly fifty years, Carnegie created a “chain store” version of the public library where previously there were many fewer libraries located predominantly in major cities.
In the 20th century, public libraries were mostly containers housing a continually expanding book collection with large reading rooms and public spaces. One significant exception to this was Piano and Roger’s Centre Pompidou, Paris (1977). The building and its program was a radical departure from the traditional library. It was conceived as a multi-programmed building that included a new free library, a center for contemporary art as well as a music research center. Moreover, the “inside out” design created a new image of a civic building with a large public plaza in front.
At the very beginning of the 21st century, another example of a new library model emerged. One of the most notable of these buildings is Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque, Japan (2001). In 1989, the city of Sendai initiated a study to create an open competition to build a new library concept dedicated to culture, complete with a library, cinema, cafe and art gallery. The library as an institution was no longer only for the book, but rather a center for information and community gathering. Ito’s design concept was a “fluid, barrier free” environment—both in its function and its structure. Like the Centre Pompidou, the project combined the library with a civic art gallery and audiovisual media center for people with visual and hearing disabilities. The radical design concept was to create a non-hierarchical public space—an open civic space that blurred the boundaries between the city and the building and married traditional library programs with other community spaces. It was another catalytic project that reflected the ambitions of a 21st century library by combining diverse programs into large open public spaces and offering flexibility for future change. In 2004, only a few years later, OMA completed the Seattle Public Library in Seattle, Washington. Since then, the architecture of the library has never been the same.
Today, the mission and scope of public libraries extends well beyond traditional large open reading rooms and book stacks. Libraries are constantly incorporating more social programs, maker spaces, vocational education, literacy classes, arts and crafts and children’s after school programs. These additional programs are changing the architecture of the library and its role as a civic space in the city.
This studio will invite students to consider what is the architecture of the future public library? What are the opportunities to rethink the free library? How does it operate as an urban building? How does it foster civic space? What are its organizing principles? How is it structured? How does it perform environmentally? What is its public face?
The studio will travel to Paris to visit Henri LaBrouste’s Bibliotheque Saint Genevieve and Bibliotheque Nationale, Dominique Perrault’s Bibliotheque Nationale de France as well as Piano and Roger’s Centre Pompidou as an example of a forward thinking version of today’s contemporary library.
The studio will look at the New York City Public Library system that includes New York Public Library (NYPL), Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) and Queens Public Library (QPL). The project will be the redesign of the Queens Central Library in Jamaica Queens, NYC.
The studio semester will be organized in three parts.
Research, precedent studies, BPL / NYPL / QPL Library research and site research
Travel Week to Paris and New York to see recent contemporary libraries in both cities as well as a visit to the BPL/NYPL Book Ops (book sorting facility) in Queens.
Design of Queens (QPL) Central Library in Jamaica Queens, NYC