A renaissance in library architecture is under way in Washington, DC, thanks to the vision of District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL) chief librarian and executive director Ginnie Cooper. Since she arrived at DCPL in 2006, Cooper has overseen the construction and renovation of 14 branch libraries, with eight more renovations and reconstructions to go. Collectively, the upgraded branches and new buildings—the latter conceived by world-class architects, including Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond Aedas, and the Freelon Group—have earned an astonishing 26 awards for their design excellence.
Now, they’ve earned the plan’s ultimate architect an award of her own: the American Institute of Architects (AIA) recently saluted Cooper’s accomplishments with a 2013 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture. As the first librarian to receive the award, which recognizes a commitment to design in public buildings as part of American cultural heritage, “I am thrilled,” says Cooper. But, she quickly adds, “I am much more excited that the importance of libraries in urban environments is being recognized.”
How did Cooper orchestrate this design revolution? With local support, experience, and the conviction that inspiring design can both produce magnificent library buildings and uplift communities. Cooper was recruited to run DCPL with the mandate to transform the capital city’s lackluster library system. Her efforts have had the near-constant backing of the three DC mayors, who have been in office since she arrived, though it dipped during the tenure of Mayor Adrian Fenty (2007–11), she says.
No stranger to a hard hat, Cooper was already seasoned in library renovation when she arrived in DC. As director of the Multnomah County Library, OR, from 1990 to 2003, she garnered support for two capital bonds to improve all 19 branch libraries and renovate the 1912 Central Library. She got married in the Multnomah Central Library while it was under construction. Though the DC branches are her most high-profile accomplishment, “What I did at Multnomah County is also front and center in the AIA award,” Cooper says.
“We were really lucky that there were architects who wanted to be a presence in Washington, DC, and eager to work with us,” says Cooper. And as with the Multnomah renovations, overseen by architect Thomas Hacker, she says, “We didn’t want people to feel like they had cookie-cutter libraries.”
When DCPL issues a Request for Information from architectural candidates for each project, Cooper conducts community focus groups to find out what each neighborhood wants and also lays the groundwork via her set of requirements. “Driving forces for design” include a mandate that the buildings must have “a prominent entry with lots of natural light” and be “at least LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Silver certified.” With library use and technology changing so rapidly, “flexibility is another hallmark,” Cooper says. That means raised floors and as few walls as possible.
From there, architects submit their proposals, which undergo an approval process that includes presenting their ideas to committees made up of library, architecture, and community representatives. Winning architects also work with a local architectural partner.
The results have been a group of buildings as different from one another as they are inspiring. The Freelon Group’s new $14.7 million Anacostia Neighborhood Library (dollar figures include fees for design, construction, furnishing, fixtures, and equipment) is angular, streamlined, and sleek. Adjaye and Wiencek + Associates’ $18 million Francis A. Gregory Library, in a park setting, is organic-feeling, with diamond-shaped windows overlooking a double-height seating area with hand-painted lamps. Adjaye and Wiencek’s more block-like $15.8 million William O. Lockridge/Bellevue Library features raised pavilions surrounding a central nucleus, a primary color palette inside the building, and an outdoor patio. Plentiful natural light and a connection to the outdoors is a hallmark of all the new buildings.
Support from the city and the library board has been key to Cooper’s success, but “building trust” with the community has also been a journey. Starting out, “People didn’t expect much of us, and the library hadn’t delivered much,” says Cooper. The renovation and rebuilding plans were initially met with a community attitude of “I’ll believe it when I see it, ” according to DCPL media relations manager George Williams. But over time, this “healthy skepticism” turned around, he says. “Now the conversation is, ‘When are you doing my neighborhood?’ ”
While the diverse library buildings in DC are adding a welcome architectural charge to the city’s landscape, Cooper says the “bigger changes” are “what’s happening inside the buildings,” many of which are in DC’s poorer sections. At the new $15.7 million Dorothy I. Height/Benning Neighborhood Library, 5,000 people signed up for library cards within a few months of opening. At the Tenley-Friendship Library, attendance at children’s programs tripled. Such increased patronage is happening throughout the system.
Cooper’s most ambitious renovation, still in the proposal and planning stage, would transform the main Mies van der Rohe–designed Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, opened in 1972 and designated a landmark in 2007. “I hate it,” Cooper says of the flagship library building, an enormous, dark, steel-and-glass rectangle where her office is located. Aside from the uninviting exterior, the structure is “riddled with lead paint,” among other problems, according to Cooper. There are no bathrooms on the main floor, and the single-pane windows, which cost $12,000–$16,000 each to replace, make it roasting in the summer and cold in the winter. She just might get her wish: DC mayor Vincent Gray included the main library renovation in his fiscal 2013 budget, to be funded by creating additional space to host private, paying tenants.
After the nonprofit Urban Land Institute produced a report with upgrading recommendations based in part on interviews with 70 local residents, the Freelon Group presented some initial design concepts last fall. They involve creating an enormous lightwell in the middle of the building, forming more inviting new outdoor spaces, and adding additional floors and an underground parking facility to bring in revenue. Initial estimates for the renovation are between $175 million and $250 million.
Plans are also on the table for a new $16.5 million Woodridge Library, an elegant, all-white structure by Wiencek + Associates and Bing Thom Architects (the award-winning Bing Thom also conceived the $36 million Surrey City Centre Library in British Columbia). In addition, sketches for the new mixed-use West End Library, designed by Enrique Norten of Ten Arquitectos, suggest a building that resembles a collection of loosely stacked glass blocks. The structure would feature a two-level, 21,000 square foot library beneath an eight-story residential apartment building. However, at press time the groundbreaking was on hold, pending litigation brought by the Ralph Nader–founded D.C. Library Renaissance Project. (Ironically, the litigation puts the project at odds with Cooper, despite its taking credit for inspiring the Cooper-led transformation process.)
Among the completed branches, the new $15 million Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library, conceived by Davis Brody Bond Aedas, is probably the greatest contrast to what it replaced, in Cooper’s view. “It used to look like a Soviet bunker,” she says. “When the late Max Bond talked to a community group about the building, he said, ‘It will be a beacon, a lantern in the district instead of something that says go away.’ ” The new library, near Howard University, is an inviting, glass-sheathed, triangle-shaped building featuring neon sculptures.
While the new DC buildings have attracted the most attention from the architecture world, Cooper is also proud of DCPL’s renovations of older branches, including that of the Georgetown Neighborhood Library, following a fire in 2007, and the $10 million historic renovation of the Northeast Neighborhood Library, now in progress. “There is something very warm about these historic renovations,” she says, “They remind me of the libraries I grew up in.”