Taking a Stand

By J. Michael Welton

Two decisive gestures in master planning, more than a century apart, have yielded two different outcomes in two adjacent states:

In 1896, Stanford White counseled the U.Va. board of visitors against blocking off the university’s Lawn and its spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the southwest. A second site to the side, he argued, would be “most practical” for a new building.

His words fell on deaf ears.

“Ignoring his advice, university officials decided to close the vista,” writes U.Va professor Daniel Bluestone in Buildings, Landscapes and Memory: Case Studies in Historic Preservation, published in 2011.
Construction of Cabell Hall quickly ensued.

The sun-shading exterior panels evoke the illusion of a loom in action. Photo by Jeff Goldberg/Esto.

The sun-shading exterior panels evoke the illusion of a loom in action. Photo by Jeff Goldberg/Esto.

Fast-forward to 2008: Architects from the Oslo- and New York-based architecture firm Snøhetta suggest to N.C. State University officials that they revise their 25-year-old master plan. They take a strong stand in favor of an expansive view from the Oval, a long grassy area three football-fields deep on Raleigh’s Centennial Campus. They, too, want to place a building to the side.

“We proposed opening up that southern edge down to Lake Raleigh, so it’s more open to the landscape,” says Nic Rader, design team leader at Snøhetta, lead architects on the project.

“Leaving the south end open makes sense,” says Clymer Cease, partner with Clark Nexsen (formerly Pearce, Brinkley, Cease & Lee), executive architects. “It frames the view, rather than closing it off.”

The original master plan called for a mirror image of the existing School of Engineering building, located at the northern end of the Oval. The new structure was to sit on the southern edge and enclose the campus.
“We challenged that,” says Rader.

This time, in North Carolina, the architects prevailed.

Along the Oval’s western edge, they carefully placed the James B. Hunt Library, an elongated, slightly doglegged structure that’s molded tightly to its site. To the east, it faces a series of soon-to-be completed dormitories for 1,200 beds, and a native landscape that will be allowed to mature over time. It all adds up to a classic Palladian scheme, though its forms vary substantially from precedents in America or abroad.

Charged with creating an iconic library that would draw other companies to campus and the region, Snøhetta collaborated with Clark Nexsen to break with the monotonous orange brick and stainless steel that chatters ceaselessly from buildings around the Oval, as well as on the formal grid to the north. Like the decision to depart from the master plan, this library boldly steps up and into the future.

“We wanted to provide a highly inspirational, incredibly innovative space for students,” Rader says. “We wanted a building like you’ve never seen before – a magnet for exploration and research.”

For their own research, Rader and Snøhetta principal Craig Dykers dug deep into N.C. State’s long history with the textile industry, a driver of the Carolina economy for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Acknowledging the technology of looms and weaving ingrained in the university’s DNA, the architects sought out a way to represent them first on the building’s exterior, and then within its interior spaces.

“It’s emblematic of the technology created on the campus,” Rader says of the building’s exterior skin. “They’re solar blades that create a functional use for shading and reducing heat loads, but they’re a literal metaphor too – and a dialog between interior and exterior.”

High technology defines work spaces, such as the Bookbot (above, photo by Mark Herboth) and a classroom display (above, photo by Jeff Goldberg/Esto).

High technology defines work spaces, such as the Bookbot (above, photo by Mark Herboth) and a classroom display (above, photo by Jeff Goldberg/Esto).

Outside, the architects created a curtain wall from 800 distinct patterns and thousands of the blades, some as wide as 18 inches and others as slim as eight. The weaving patterns swoop up and back, along with stairways inside.
“There’s a north/south axis through the building, with east/west exposure to the sun,” says Cease. “The idea is that we want the building to move upward in a weave that flows from the base to the top, with an interplay of light.”
Inside, the weaving takes place over five levels of wide open spaces, stitched together with Day-Glo yellow stairways. Some stretch out in wide Roman seating for lectures or gatherings, but all lead up to the fifth-floor Skyline Reading Room, perched over lake below and clouds above. Intense pops of color shout across each level: red for a ground-floor auditorium, green for cafés, orange for restrooms and midnight blue for fire stairs and elevators.

Throughout it all, there’s a pervasive democratic feel to its 235,000 square feet of space, flexibly used by students and visitors alike. “The idea was to make it the most special place on campus, with the best views of the lake and of Raleigh,” says Shann Rushing, a Clark Nexsen associate. “It’s meant to be open to the students and the public – it’s not reserved for a boardroom, but for everyone.”

Furnishings from Herman Miller, Knoll, Steelcase, Thos. Moser, Bernhardt, Davis and HBF – much of it sourced from North Carolina manufacturers – are dispersed liberally on each level, with 1,750 seats and 75 different styles in 100 mind-blowing colors.

The library offers views, natural light, and communal and quiet spaces. Photo by Jeff Goldberg/Esto.

The library offers views, natural light, and communal and quiet spaces. Photo by Jeff Goldberg/Esto.

At its very heart is a “Bookbot” retrieval system that fetches tomes of choice electronically at the touch of a screen. In essence, it’s a computerized forklift that searches, on command, through 1.5 million books in the library’s below-ground stacks – and not just for the volumes assigned to it.

“The university invented software that mimics browsing,” Rader says. “You can wave your finger, see the books next to the one you’re searching for, read a few pages and request it.”

No 19th-century architect – not Thomas Jefferson nor Stanford White nor any who might have worked on N.C. State’s early buildings – could have envisioned the kind of technology that would seek out and retrieve a book so accurately from so many choices.

Jefferson and White, though, could foresee the enduring value of a master plan that opened up both landscape and mind to unlimited possibilities, even if the late-19th-century U.Va. board of visitors could not. But because of forward-thinking leaders at Snøhetta, Clark Nexsen and N.C. State, the James B. Hunt Library now stands as a symbol of how long-held plans can be turned into lasting inspiration – if everyone involved looks and listens thoughtfully.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Dwell, and International Herald Tribune. He also publishes an online design magazine.

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