Cambridge Public Library, MA

The original Cambridge Public Library, a Richardson-romanesque influenced building built in 1888 by Van Brunt & Howe, was recently renovated and added onto with a very modern addition by William Rawn Associates.  The addition has been well received, and the city should be applauded for encouraging a contemporary solution for the addition.

The contrast between the two buildings is instructive.  The original building, in heavy, articulated masonry with volumes defined through the use of geometry rather than material change, establishes a clear civic presence with a central tower set about the clearly defined entrance and reading room.  There is a recognition here that society is bound by its institutions, and that government, as the organization of society, is a good thing that has the potential to improve our collective being, and especially so when it is representative of the people it is organizing.

The addition, by contrast, presents the ideal of civic responsibility and identity as a much weakened proposition.  Its appearance is not of library any more than it is of corporate headquarters or large house, except for its attachment to something so clear as to be a library, or its mother, a church.  Solidity and groundedness have been replaced with transparency and airiness, and the assuredness of stone replaced with the tenuousness of hundreds of maintenance seeking motors making countless adjustments to movable louvers and foils, so as to enable the near complete transparency.

The new addition is slick.  But its only mediocre architecture.  Its attraction is the transparent bar that presents itself as the new identity of the Public Library, but this bar is not much more than a kit of parts shipped over from Germany and extruded the requisite length.  It's more about technology than space making, and is emblematic of the current fetishizing of facades over space making/defining.  For all it's articulation, it's completely inarticulate, with entrance noted only as a horizontal plane hovering over the doors.  Entrance exists as an intrusion through expensive German technology, and with respect to the facade appears incidental in its placement, though located on axis with Trowbridge St.

Facade as composition of volumes/elements

Facade as tool of light delivery and temperature control

One doesn't arrive at this building; one passes through two bars until confronted with a fourth bar at an elevated position.  As you can infer from this description, this is another "bar" scheme, consisting of laminated bars through which one (effortlessly) penetrates upon entry, a bit like chomping into a wafer bar.  One can observe these layers, but they are so subtly articulated that passing through them doesn't add to the experience, as each bar is equally open and light, in contrast to the original building, in which each volume is highly articulated, sequenced, and dark.  The first bar in the new addition is a reading room and shares the curtain wall; this space can be understood as a Loggia of sorts, and is no doubt a pleasant place to sit and casually read.  I say casually, because with the near total openness one is constantly subject to distraction.  This is an interesting contrast with the old building, and points to the difference in attitude and culture between the eras.  It's as if the new wing had a set mission to articulate the multitasking distracted citizens of today with a library intent on reinforcing those traits.

 The East Elevation is all about articulating the bars

One of the saddest aspects of the new wing is the way it eviscerates the original library.  The main entry to the complex is now through the new wing, and the circulation bar provides connection to the original building, which still houses a reading room and a "teen room", along with some other functions.  The original entry is now a dead end conference room of some sort, with the loggia infilled with glass.  The steps now have blocks set on them, centered on the arches, to emphasize that entry "no longer happens here".

It's too bad the original building couldn't be retained as the entrance to the new complex.  Its a much more dignified building, and its sad to see it relegated to corner reading room.  There would have been accessibility issues, and perhaps the programming would have had to be revised a bit, but it would have been a more satisfying solution.


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