First Out of the Gate

Benning Library at dusk. Paúl Rivera, photographer.

By Roger K. Lewis, FAIA

Washington, DC, is on a library building binge, with multiple projects in design or under construction. In April, the first of these projects—Benning Library—opened. But this is not your grandfather’s library. Rather it aspires to be a vibrant, inviting social venue and not just a place to warehouse, read and borrow books.

The exterior design strategy sets up visitors for a very pleasant surprise: the library’s wonderfully bright, expansive, visually unified interior space. Paúl Rivera, photographer.

Historically, libraries have been austere and traditionally-styled civic edifices embodying spatial diversity ranging from intimate research carrels to grand, figurally-shaped reading rooms surrounded by stacks. But modernist architects saw libraries as opportunities for non-traditional expression and aesthetic experimentation. Recall the libraries of Alvar Aalto at Vyborg and Mount Angel, Louis Kahn at Exeter, Michael Graves at San Juan Capistrano, Moshe Safdie at Salt Lake City and Rem Koolhaas at Seattle.

The 22,000 square-foot, $10 million Benning Library, designed by Davis Brody Bond Aedas, continues the 20th century tradition of being non-traditional.

Breaking with tradition started with the site, located in the District’s predominantly African-American Benning neighborhood east of the Anacostia River. The site backs up to a neighborhood shopping center and slopes downward a full story front to back. Consequently the rear of the library’s main, street-level space overlooks a parking lot, a Safeway and a CVS pharmacy. Placing a public library adjacent to—indeed making it a part of—a mundane shopping center would have once been cultural apostasy. But times have changed.  In fact this juxtaposition of culture and commerce is emblematic of today’s non-traditional library serving as accessible, user-friendly community hangout.

Seen from the street, the low-profile building with its subtly sloping, vegetated roofs—designed for LEED Silver Certification—looks positively anti-monumental. Paúl Rivera, photographer.

Seen from the street, the low-profile building with its subtly sloping, vegetated roofs—designed for LEED Silver Certification—looks positively anti-monumental. If “Library” weren’t written across the front facade’s grid pattern of colored panels, one might think it was a bowling alley or factory outlet store. The bifurcated roof and layered cladding of copper panels, aluminum-framed glazing and concrete diminish the building’s perceived scale. But the exterior design strategy sets up visitors for a very pleasant surprise: the library’s wonderfully bright, expansive, visually unified interior space.

The feel-good character of the library’s main floor is attributable to an artfully conceived composition of elements: the exposed, white-painted structural skeleton of columns, beams, trusses and bar joists supporting perforated acoustic panels; daylight flooding in through clerestories and window walls; rhythmically spaced lines of fluorescent fixtures suspended in a horizontal plane seven feet above the floor; and carpeting in striated shades of green. White surfaces dominate but are accented by soft, pastel green panels and the warm hue of natural wood.

Like Kahn’s library at Exeter, desks for reading and study are lit by natural light along the periphery with book stacks closer to the building’s core. Paúl Rivera, photographer.

Within the free-plan space are rows of bookshelves, tables and chairs, and 32 computer stations. Main floor seating is mostly arrayed along the sun-screened south window wall.  Below the roof bifurcation, a free-standing, rectangular pavilion contains individual study cubicles. Adjacent to the grand stair descending to the lower level, a pergola-like pavilion encompasses a series of open reading spaces and bookshelves. Like other elements deployed in the space, the pavilion structures stand well below the ceiling, thus preserving the transparency and unity of the main space. Community facilities downstairs include a multi-purpose room, conference rooms and an exhibition space.

During my visit, lots of Benning neighborhood residents were browsing, reading, working on computers and quietly chatting with each other, proof that architectural aspirations for this new library are being realized.

Roger K. Lewis, FAIA, is an architect, planner, and Professor Emeritus of the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Lewis, a columnist for The Washington Post, is also the author of Architect: A Candid Guide to the Profession (1985, 1998).

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