August 15, 2017

Smith College Library Redesign Engages Maya Lin, Shepley Bulfinch

West elevation, Neilson Library renovation  © 2016 Maya Lin Studio

West elevation, Neilson Library renovation
© 2016 Maya Lin Studio

On October 14 architect Maya Lin unveiled her plans for the new William Allan Neilson Library at Smith College, Northampton, MA. The drawings and model for the extensive renovation of the library, which will include upgrades and alterations to the original building and the replacement of two previous additions, were met with approval by the gathering of students, faculty, and administration at Smith’s Sweeney Concert Hall—not surprising, as they were only part of a years-long visioning process that involved thousands of the college’s community members from campus to town.

The team of Maya Lin and national design firm Shepley Bulfinch was selected in April 2015 to head the project by the Smith College Board of Trustees. The renovation, which could cost in excess of $100 million, will break ground in summer 2017, and is projected to be complete for fall semester of 2020. As the campus prepares for the much-needed renovation, planners are also looking into creative ways to repurpose existing space to accommodate library services in the meantime.

A DISCONNECTED BUILDING

Smith is a private, independent women’s liberal arts college that opened its doors in 1875. It is part of the Five Colleges consortium, which also includes nearby Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Since its construction in 1909, the original Neilson Library building has served as an important hub for the campus—planned as a botanical garden in 1893 by Frederick Law Olmsted, who is best known as one of the designers of New York City’s Central Park. However, the current library building is poorly integrated with the site. Two long brick additions, built in 1962 and 1982, enlarged the library’s physical space but effectively bisected the campus, separating the science quadrangle from the arts and humanities buildings—what Shepley Bulfinch president Carole Wedge termed “a short-term solution for solving a short term-problem [that] often creates a long term obstacle.” The library is situated on a hillside with a 16-foot elevation change from east to west, and much of the interior lacks natural light. Currently, noted Wedge, there are “very few places, when you’re in the building, that you feel connected to the landscape.”

Studies showed that the library’s configuration doesn’t meet the current needs of students or faculty. “When we did surveys,” said Smith president Kathleen McCartney, “we found out that students said it’s the building they’re in the most and the building they like the least.”

Administration began thinking seriously about the need for a new library in 2010, creating a master plan for the college’s four libraries: the Neilson, the Anita O’K. and Robert R. Young Science Library, the Hillyer Art Library, and the Werner Josten Performing Arts Library. After conducting several studies of existing conditions, the Board of Trustees approved the idea of a renovation to Neilson, and in 2014 began the process of selecting an architect.

PROBLEM-SOLVING PARTNERSHIP

After working with Smith on its initial studies of the library system’s needs, Shepley Bulfinch was interested in consideration for the project. The firm’s principals had also noticed Lin’s work, and the way she integrated buildings with natural sites seemed like a good fit for Neilson Library.

“How do you make a building feel inclusive and welcoming but also very forward looking and adaptive to technology? We’re all problem solvers on some level,” noted Wedge. “But I do think that she, per her experience in life, has made…a very strong philosophy about art and materiality.” Lin was interested as well, and the two presented their qualifications as a partnership.

Shepley Bulfinch has a large portfolio of higher education design projects, including libraries at Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, the University of Notre Dame, and Virginia Commonwealth University’s James Branch Cabell Library, a 2016 LJ New Landmark Library.

Although she has not worked on an academic library project before, Lin—who rocketed to prominence in 1981 after winning the design competition for the Washington, DC, Vietnam Veterans Memorial when she was 21 and still an undergraduate—has designed several cultural heritage building projects, including the Langston Hughes Library and Riggio-Lynch Chapel at the Children’s Defense Fund’s Haley Farm in Clinton, TN, and the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City. Lin also has deep ties to Smith: her mother, Julia Chang Lin, graduated from Smith in 1951 after escaping from Communist China two years earlier, and Lin received an honorary degree from the college in 1993.

“There were several things that made us very interested in this collaboration between Shepley and Maya Lin Studios,” McCartney told LJ. “The first is that they understood that we had the opportunity to integrate two halves of the campus…. Maya in particular was one of the few architects who really talked about the landscape, the space in the round, not just the space within the library.”

“This is an institution that’s dedicated to women and ideas,” added provost and dean of faculty Katherine Rowe. “She’s always building for communities, and she’s spoken in really compelling ways about her interest in learning at Smith.”

AN ENGAGED COMMUNITY

Following the selection of the Lin/Shepley Bulfinch team, Smith’s 25-member Library Program Committee, chaired by Rowe, designed an engagement project that would involve nearly 2,000 students, faculty, staff, administration, trustees, alumnae, and members of the Northampton community in more than 30 “engagement sessions” to help determine the new Neilson Library’s needs, functions, and design. These sessions were led by members of Shepley Bulfinch, the Student Advisory Committee, associate vice president for facilities Roger Mosier, and Brightspot design consultants, and included discussions held in the library and Smith’s houses (dormitories), faculty lunches, one-on-one interviews, an alumnae event, and an online survey.

Students also contributed research as part of their course work. One Introduction to Anthropology class worked with Brightspot to collect observations of student study patterns—the students got an opportunity to work with professional researchers, did hands-on anthropological observations, and, noted Rowe, “their results ended up driving the program in a really direct way.”

Representatives of the Committee also visited a number of academic libraries across the country, noting what worked and what library leaders said they would have done differently (“At Duke they said, have some space that isn’t programmed, because by the time you build the library you’ll want to add something,” said McCartney).

AFFIRMATIONS AND SURPRISES

Library users revealed, unsurprisingly, a great desire for natural light, but also an unexpected connection to books and print materials. Regardless of age, discipline, or level of work, they were constantly looping between print and digital technologies, moving from browsing the stacks to digital resources to special collections.

There was a clear call for versatility in the workspaces themselves, Rowe told LJ, and for students to be able to do collaborate or do solo work—but still be in proximity to each other. “Part of future-proofing…for the library meant imagining spaces that users themselves could change or that could be changed over time relatively easily…. We see students shaping their own environments from moment to moment, needing to move between social and collaborative workspaces and very quiet workspaces, quiet reading nooks, even in the course of a day, certainly in the course of a week or a semester.”

However, some of the spaces that planners expected to prove obsolete turned out to be among the most popular. And the process of looking at the reasons produced a new set of insights.

The library’s Caverno Room, for instance, dedicated to Smith’s classical antiquities collection, was identified as one of the most beloved study spaces. “Some of that had to do with the size and the scaling,” said Rowe, “but some had to do with how well defined the materials in there were, how clearly legible and characterized to anybody walking in.” Perhaps, the committee realized, there was a need not just to preserve this room in particular but to create more like it.

So there will be spaces for what Rowe calls “pop-up collections,” short- and longer-term collections of materials curated by students, faculty, and staff—not only in the new library, but during the transition while it is being built, in various spaces around campus “as a way of ‘doing the library’ in a recognizable and welcoming format while we’re in construction.” Two pop-up collections that have been mounted so far, exploring themes around feminist publications, have been extremely popular. Noted Rowe, “Small collections invite you in to read all the way through.”

DESIGNING FOR LIGHT, INTEGRATION

The design Lin unveiled in October emphasizes natural light, flexible spaces, sustainable use of materials and holistic integration into its environment. The library hopes to be part of an eventual campus-wide carbon neutrality goal.

The original building will remain as the library’s hub. “I’m hopefully creating a really nice dialog between modernity and history without recreating history in the newer pieces,” said Lin at a presentation at the New-York Historical Society in February.

Those new pieces include two asymmetrical curved “jewel box” wings to replace the existing blocky additions. The new wings, to be built of masonry, wood, and glass over a foundation of New England stone, will offer light-filled spaces cantilevered over the ground floor; horizontal louvers will filter light, reduce glare, and increase heating and cooling efficiency.

Each of the new spaces, said Lin, will “have their own voice.” The north wing has been designed to be more active and collaborative, holding the library’s general collections, reading space, a digital media hub, and a café—at Lin’s presentation, the news that the north wing might be kept open 24 hours a day was met with applause.

The south wing will bring together Smith’s special collections—the Smith College Archives, the Mortimer Rare Book Room collection, and the Sophia Smith Collection of women’s historical material. This will allow students and researchers to move more easily among them. “It’s a more holistic approach to the research questions that our scholars are going to be coming to us asking,” explained dean of libraries Susan Fliss. “We’ll be able to give them a more comprehensive path to go through our collections.”

Interdisciplinary faculty and staff will be brought together in the new spaces as well “to triage the questions that students have,” Fliss told LJ. “Having the special collections and this other unified service area…together in the same building will lead to more collaborations across the collections and the services.”

On the building’s north side, a new outdoor amphitheater and sunken courtyard will provide open-air study and reading areas in good weather and bring natural light into the lower level. In the original core space, an oculus skylight will bring light into the atrium and a top floor skyline room will offer study space with a view of the campus and nearby Holyoke Mountain Range. The adjacent Alumnae Gymnasium—site of the first women’s basketball game in the nation and now home to the Sophia Smith Collection—will remain in place and be connected to the Neilson via an underground tunnel.

The new layout will reduce the building’s overall footprint, unifying sight lines and restoring easy movement through the campus, and will include handicapped accessible access from Seelye Lawn on the east side. Landscape designer Edwina von Gal, in collaboration with Ryan Associates, will work with the team to both improve and maintain the integrity of the original campus plan.

“When you’ve worked at a number of different institutions on the same type of building I think you start to develop the ability to really understand how the library works both from the staff point of view as well as the community point of view, and then you become a better listener to what makes this unique to that community,” said Wedge. “The library’s role at Smith is…a bit more integrated into the day-to-day of research and curriculum and teaching, so that led to a very inclusive programming process.”

MOVING INTO THE NEXT PHASE

While the major design concepts have been articulated, details such as adjacencies, busy vs. quiet zones, and workflows will be developed and finalized as the building is constructed.

Several other “library-enabling projects” are in development as work moves into the next phase. Smith’s Young Science Library is closing for renovations of its own at the end of December, and will relocate its reference materials to Neilson. In 2017, when work commences at Neilson, the reopened Young will become the interim hub for library services, and along with the Green Street Annex Classroom Building will house portions of Neilson’s collections, staff, and activities. Other services will be provided at the Hillyer and Josten Libraries. A portion of its resources will go to the new Five College Library Annex in nearby Hatfield, MA, which began construction in September and is expected to be completed in late May 2017.

Smith is also looking into possibilities for adaptive reuse of other campus spaces. One possibility is using the funds that would ordinarily go toward renting or constructing temporary study space and reinvesting them into existing resources, driven by ideas from their users. The Program Committee has asked each of the 35 houses for proposals to permanently upgrade or renovate their study spaces while the library is under construction. Ten will receive funding.

As for other methods of reinvestment, McCartney added, “We have so many coffee houses in Northampton. There must be 20 of them. Everyone has their favorite…. So I think the town can expect a little more business during the renovation.”

“It really is impressive looking at how much preparation the campus did in involving people and all of the different areas that they looked into,” said Fliss. “I think it could be a model for future renovation projects at other institutions.”

Smith has already raised $11 million toward the renovation, and McCartney hopes that it will captivate the imaginations of donors—particularly alumnae. Much as the Louis Kahn–designed library at Phillips Exeter Academy attracts visitors for weekly tours, she hopes “that people will want to come and view the [Neilson] Library as a piece of art.”

“We want a place for learning, we want a place where people can connect with one another, we want a place that’s innovative—that means technology-infused—and we want a place that’s beautiful,” she added. “Those are the four essential themes that will guide the renovation.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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