The Far Rockaway branch of New York’s Queens Public Library took its status as a community center to a new level last year when it served as an aid center and emergency supply depot for residents in the seaside community that was harder hit than most by Hurricane Sandy. The library’s role in providing disaster relief put long-standing plans to replace the branch on the fast track. Earlier this month, officials released the plans for a new branch that they think can cement the library’s newfound place as a neighborhood anchor.
The site at Mott and Central Avenues has been home to libraries since 1904, when a Carnegie library was erected there. It was one of the first in the Queens Public Library system, which was named LJ’s 2009 Library of the Year. That building was destroyed by fire in 1962, and replaced with the current facility. In contrast to the work-a-day structure that currently serves the neighborhood, the design for the new Far Rockaway branch offers an eye-catching glass appeal that’s sure to stand out in the neighborhood.
Snøhetta, the Norwegian architectural firm that designed the James Hunt Library at North Carolina State University, as well as the updated Library of Alexandria, looked for design cues in some of the earliest libraries, like the Greek agora, which functioned more as a community center than a book repository. To Snøhetta’s designers, said Nathan McRae, project manager for the new branch, a library is a destination, not a resource. “First and foremost, it has to be a place for users to gather,” he said.
McRae noted that the library’s design is meant as a contrast to the surrounding area, which is dominated by 99 cent stores and donut shops. The exterior of the 18,000 square foot building will be constructed from translucent glass, coated in ceramics meant to mimic the color of Long Island’s sunsets. Prominent in the design is the entrance, a corner of the building that looks sliced off, leaving a triangular opening the height of the two story building. The dramatic entryway is meant to be welcoming, said McRae, announcing the library as a proudly public building.
That sense of being a destination, rather than a resource, was key to the adoption of Snøhetta’s design. “Libraries in Queens are community spaces and destinations. That role will increase in importance as time goes on,” said Queens Library president and CEO Thomas Galante in a statement. “The new library will be recognizable and iconic, letting the community know that what happens inside this building is very special.”
While an iconic look was a priority, the new branch will be much more than just a pretty face. During the storm, the Far Rockaway branch served as a supply depot and community center, despite its power being knocked out. Planners are working under the assumption that Sandy won’t spell the end of storm damage in the area, and are working under the assumption that in the event of another disaster, the library will once again serve as a gathering place for those affected.
The site of the construction is above the elevation recommended by FEMA flood zone guidelines updated earlier this year, and the exterior will be constructed with laminated glass designed to shrug off damage from future storms. Designers also hope to equip the new library with solar panels and a battery backup system, which would allow the library to be powered independently of the power grid in case of outages.
Joanne King, associate communications director for the Queens Public Library, said that Sandy left a lasting impact on the Far Rockaway branch, but it was an unexpectedly positive one. “It made the community more aware of what the library was able to do for them, even if they hadn’t been there before,” said King. With the new facility, Far Rockaway librarians hope to strengthen that connection.
The capacity to serve the community in case of a storm is just one example of the most important factor of the new branch’s design: versatility. Meeting and conference rooms will have rolling walls to accommodate one larger crowd or several small events, depending on the day-to-day needs of patrons. Access to technology that can serve multiple purposes was also seen as more important than shelf space in the new design, reflecting the needs of the community, such as job placement programs that have been a big hit with library users in recent years.
To McRae and his design team, that versatility is an important way to make sure that the library can accommodate changes in the future and adapt to serve new needs as they arise. “The last thing we want to do is design the latest outdated library,” said McRae. “Librarians tend to embrace the open-endedness of their jobs. We don’t want to constrain them.”
Construction is scheduled to begin at the end of 2014, with the new space opening its doors to the public late in 2016 or early in 2017. After the current library is demolished next year, the library will either move all of its operations into their teen space down the street, or into a different temporary space in the neighborhood. While those final plans still have to be hammered out, the library’s presence in the neighborhood won’t be interrupted during construction. “That’s not a connection we would sever,” said King.