Challenge: How to turn an ornately designed, inconveniently shaped basement into a sleek, technology-driven community space? This was the question that Bostwick Design Partnership faced when taking on the task of creating TechCentral, Cleveland Public Library’s new technology center on the lower level of the library’s downtown Louis Stokes Wing.
The roughly $1 million renovation involved transforming the area, which had housed the library’s AV collection in tightly spaced stacks, into a state-of-the-art tech center with the open-plan appeal of an Apple store. Operational since June, the 7000 square foot TechCentral’s main elements include 90 desktop workstations, the “Feature Wall,” which is a 70 square inch interactive screen, a “TechToybox” displaying new wireless loanable devices, MyCloud personal computing services, and a 3-D printer. Employees in orange coats roam the area, offering help as needed or scheduling one-on-one training. As TechCentral manager C.J. Lynce says, “The focus is not, ‘We have 90 computers.’ It is, ‘This is a place to learn.’ We want to be not just a provider but an inspiration.”
The architects had to clear hurdles in their quest to create a “calm, welcoming space” from what existed before. First, the layout: the area in question was “an awkward, L-shaped space that you enter on the thin line of the L,” says Richard Ortmeyer, a principal at Bostwick Design. Before, the first thing patrons were confronted with when entering was a “highly textured, stainless-steel reference desk” designed in the 1990s. Located under an arch with marquee-like spot lighting, the enormous jagged desk emphasized the “us and them” divide between patron and employee, says Ortmeyer. However, those at the library who remembered how much the desk cost at the time were reluctant to let it go.
Other design impediments included “gigantic, overscale blue columns” that are signature elements elsewhere in the library and a mural-sized, orange-and-green tile wall flanking the desk on both sides. There was also a problem with wayfinding: walking into the building, patrons weren’t always aware that the downstairs space existed.
Ortmeyer and his colleagues would have loved to have started with a clean slate, scuttling the desk, columns, and tile wall. While the library board agreed that the desk could go, it would not dispense with the columns or the intricate mural.
With those parameters, the architects got to work. Their overall scheme: make as many things white as possible, abolish any sort of us/them dynamic, use elegant flowing forms to complement the arch, and employ strategic lighting to direct patrons toward the services at hand.
Deciding to paint everything white, including the previously mauve ceiling, was the easy part. “Of all colors, white allows the library to focus on its multimedia,” says Ortmeyer. Next, with the desk out of the way, the architects opened up the area behind the arch so that it was accessible to patrons. Within this expansive space, in place of the desk, the first thing visitors spy is the interactive screen feature wall and the TechToybox. On either side of these, patrons find an understated white help desk area on the left and a checkin area on the right.
As another key element, Ortmeyer and colleagues created two sleek white “laptop bars” running along the tiled walls and curving gracefully under the open archway into the reception and checkin areas. Elsewhere, two additional laptop areas and rows of computer stations also feature the “curvy, custom craftsmanship” that makes the various work spaces “all one thing rather than visually separate.”
Lighting is key
“Lighting was also key,” Ortmeyer notes. While his colleagues would have loved to replace all the lighting, the budget would not allow for that. Still, convinced that strategic lighting “guides you to where you want to look,” they added indirect illumination at key points. Before, it looked like the librarian behind the desk and under the marquee lights, was on center stage. Now, cool underlighting beneath the reception, checkin, and work surfaces, accomplished with concealed LED panels behind translucent resin, draw people to those areas.
Since the tile wall was there to stay, Ortmeyer and colleagues added lighting on the wall’s back edge, making the colors more vibrant. Then, to punctuate the rest of the all-white space, “we picked one of the colors in the mural to allow it to pop,” says Ortmeyer—resulting in orange chairs, which complement the employees’ bright orange coats.
In addition to the surface design considerations, technological flexibility was also critical—“wire management and durability,” Ortmeyer says. “A raised floor system”—a $60,000 access floor—“allowed us to make the space as flexible as possible.” Other budget line items included $535,000 for overall construction; $200,000 for furniture, fixtures, and equipment; and $42,400 for multimedia.
Another $33,600 went toward an innovative wayfinding scheme, branding, and media walls, undertaken by Karen Skunta and Co. This included visual branding, signage across the library’s main buildings, inside and out, highlighting the changes underway. Skunta also designed the interactive media on the feature wall.
The architects’ attention to craftsmanship resulted in occasional time spent laying on the floor looking up at the chairs and tables, along with “many debates about the widths of the workstations,” says Ortmeyer. After he and colleagues “carefully calibrated” measurements, “we customized them to be larger at the ends so that people can work together.”
When Ortmeyer came into TechCentral not long ago to show it off to his parents, he was immediately approached by a staff member in an orange coat. “A young tech guy whom I hadn’t met started to speak,” he recalls. “He started telling me about the cool elements in the library. It was [an] exciting experience.”