August 19, 2017

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James Branch Cabell Library | New Landmark Libraries 2016 Winner

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Engage the Community

James Branch Cabell Library
Virginia Commonwealth University
| Richmond

ARCHITECT Shepley Bulfinch

The updated James Branch Cabell Library at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), designed by Shepley Bulfinch, took inspiration from the original midcentury modern design and used it to transform the library into a campus jewel, embracing the school’s strengths in the arts. As one judge noted, the design was “executed with a very skillful hand.” Seeking to balance historic preservation with modern needs and heighten the library’s placement in a dense urban area, the firm reinterpreted many elements of the old building. By mirroring the concrete fins of the original construction in vertical glass, Shepley Bulfinch added solar shading to reading rooms. By cladding the renovation in limestone panels, the firm echoed other public buildings in Richmond. One of the area’s most respected architecture critics, Edwin ­Slipek Jr., called the renovation an “instant landmark,” and the building received the Excellence in Commercial Renovation Award from the Fan District Association.

The library is no longer a “precast concrete box.” It is now a user-centered space that pays tribute to creation and connection. Added glass walls on the northeast corner of the building and enlarged and glazed existing windows allow passersby to see activity inside, bring daylight deeper into the interior, and offer inspiring views of the city, adjacent cathedral, and campus. A sunken lightwell brings daylight into the basement. Even the loading dock was reimagined as a new campus destination: it now anchors the library in the surrounding landscape and offers more green space. By adding a water retention cistern to the site, lightening the load on the city’s sewer system.

A shining jewel (top):; light and glass reinvigorate a midcentury classic. Photo by Allen Jones (l.-r.) The interior main staircase adorned with LED panels that change color; and the reading/study rooms offer views of the neighboring chapel and campus buildings. Photos by Robert Benson

A SHINING JEWEL  (top):; light and glass reinvigorate a midcentury classic. Photo by Allen Jones
(l.-r.) The interior main staircase adorned with LED panels that change color; and the reading/study rooms offer views
of the neighboring chapel and campus buildings. Photos by Robert Benson

Built on strengths

Shepley Bulfinch capitalized on the building’s structure, mostly poured concrete, as it aids heat absorption. The firm enhanced this energy-saving design with a high-performance envelope, a high-reflectance roof, and other energy-recovery methods that reduce energy consumption by 22 percent over the baseline American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers standards. The company also added a more human scale throughout by maximizing floor-to-ceiling space, establishing outside seating, adding a colonnade and trellis, and expanding much-appreciated green space.

The atrium and entrance were also redesigned to engage users immediately upon entering. Set behind the grand staircase is a light and wood feature. Programmable LED strips, designed to change color with varying activities and events, are set into slotted wooden panels. The same design is placed at each of the staircases, helping patrons orient themselves.

Some 45 percent of VCU’s student population of 31,242 are students of color, and many are the first in their family to attend college. The library is the largest research institution in the region and is used by the local community. So the renovation had at its core a mission to provide people-focused spaces. The renovation doubled the seating capacity and developed multiuse areas that can respond to a variety of usage patterns and surges in demand across the academic term.

(l.-r.) The basement light wells bring daylight below street level; and more light fills the “porch” reading room on the second level. left photo by Kevin Henegan; right photo by  Robert Benson

(l.-r.) The basement light wells bring daylight below street level; and more light fills the “porch” reading room
on the second level. Left photo by Kevin Henegan; right photo by Tom Kojcsich/VCU

The renovation yielded new service models. In discussions with the architect, staff made clear that they wanted to connect with patrons in more personal ways. In response, Shepley Bulfinch created service point “pods” replacing larger, fixed points such as reference or circulation desks. These are intended to facilitate consultation and collaboration between users and staff, all of whom are cross-trained to assist with circulation, reference, or technology. The pods are designed to be adapted and repurposed in anticipation of changing needs over time.

In response to declining requests for physical materials and to emphasize the new people-focused approach, all materials were moved to an annex, making room for the library to provide resources appropriate to the student body, and allowing patrons to access and create content via a variety of technologies.

The new Workshop is a Maker space that centers the library’s role as a place of creation. It complements another standout feature: the Vitrine, a “platform for artistic and cultural expression.” A large audiovisual display, the Vitrine showcases a variety of output, including kinetic art, short films, animations, and still images.

The renovation of the James Branch Cabell Library proves that library buildings can, like staff, services, and collections, be dynamic and adaptive, and inspire and support students and faculty in rising to whatever the future brings.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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