November 24, 2017

Windows on Boston | New Landmark Libraries 2016

BRIGHT IDEAS The completion of Phase 2 of Boston PL’s renovation focused on letting in light, with pops of color that tie in to Phase 1. The modern welcome desk (l.) is surrounded by playful digital displays; the computer center’s new windows (r.) let in abundant natural light and offer a glimpse of the stone that once encompassed the entire building

BRIGHT IDEAS The completion of Phase 2 of Boston PL’s renovation focused on letting in light, with pops
of color that tie in to Phase 1. The modern welcome desk (l.) is surrounded by playful digital displays;
the computer center’s new windows (r.) let in abundant natural light and offer a glimpse of the stone
that once encompassed the entire building

The transformation is evident even before visitors enter. Moving down Boylston Street from Copley Square, past the side of the historic McKim Building, the façade of the Boston Public Library (BPL) no longer resembles a bunker. The massive granite slabs that once obscured the entrance are now embedded in the pavement. Through the glass, passersby can see people lining a laptop bar. It’s 10:30 on a Thursday morning, and the place is jamming.

The grim granite lobby of Philip Johnson’s rigid nine-square plan has given way to an open, dynamic space filled with light and color. A carefully random composition of digital screens form a backdrop for the sleekly modern welcome desk, which proclaims “Free to All” in an ultra­modern font, echoing the central entry arch into the original McKim Building.

On July 9, the renovation of BPL’s Johnson Building opened its final phase to over 5,000 visitors. Even though patrons got a taste of what was to come with the completion of the second floor last year, BPL president David Leonard says the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “The feedback from visitors, from the Back Bay residents, from people all across the city, it has exceeded their expectations of what was possible for Phase 2.”

Bold choices

Remarkably, the opening took place less than five years after the first idea for it was floated by Leonard, then director of administration and technology. “The first memo talked about needing a new children’s room, needing to take down the granite plinths on the front of the building, which are symbols of not a warm welcoming open space, and to look at our underutilized space and see if there were possibilities.”

The nine-square plan is still detectable in the result, with the bay to the left of the entrance housing the New and Novel area: recent acquisitions and magazines on mobile display shelves flanked by a variety of seating choices. To the right are the Newsfeed Café and the WGBH satellite studio. Straight ahead, behind the welcome desk, is the interactive interface to BPL’s “digital stacks,” providing access to more than 100,000 digitized items from the Digital Commonwealth project. Patrons can save items to their BPL account, use a temporary library card for later online access, or even request to see the physical object.

The differentiation of new elements was essential to the planning concept. “If you’re going to make an intervention that makes sense, be bold so that it’s clear what’s original Johnson from an architectural point of view and what’s new. You don’t want to lose the sense of continuity, but you want to be able to tell the difference,” says Leonard. New elements are identified through color and movement, against Johnson’s calm gray granite and darkly tinted glass. Deferrari Hall in the center square holds the familiar atrium and grand stairway connecting all the floors; this space retains the colors and materials of the original design, safeguarding the structure’s landmark status.

Making new connections

Moving farther into the space, beyond New and Novel, is the new link to the McKim portion between a glass elevator and the Borrower Services desk. Tech Central provides expanded public computer access, and the fiction collection fills the rest of the first floor, overlooked by a copper half-eagle, half-lion griffin from the roof of McKim. Numerous artworks were installed throughout the building, interspersed with the circulating collections.

The geometry of the plan is now interrupted by angled red stairways and bridges linking the first floor to the mezzanine and hovering overhead. The Community Learning Center (literacy and language collections), conference rooms, and several types of seating occupy this level. Continuing up to the second floor, you find the children’s library, Teen Central, and circulating nonfiction, which opened in Phase 1 of the renovation. (For more details, see Bringing Boston In)

On the lower level, Rabb Hall has been refurbished into a state-of-the-art lecture hall and auditorium. The Kirstein Business Library & Innovation Center is already hosting collaborative programs with local partners, and a glass wall offers a glimpse into the workings of the library’s digital team, as well as that of Internet Archive and Digital Public Library of America staff, who are scanning rare objects and documents to make them accessible.

The project presented enormous challenges, but the management’s innovative service philosophy was impossible to implement fully in the building’s previous incarnation. From a dark, brooding bunker to a space full of light, color, and activity, the atmosphere now truly complements the classical formality of the McKim Building. “That’s what libraries have to offer when we’re firing on all cylinders,” says Leonard. “We’ll never have all the budget we want, we’ll never have all the staff we want, but within the constraints that we have, we are delivering a joyful experience. It’s been a while, I think, since BPL has been thought of in those terms. It’s quite a privilege to have gotten us to this point and to see people embrace that.”

Lauren Stara is Library Building Specialist for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. She was previously Director of the Whistler Public Library, BC

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