March 22, 2018

New Landmark Libraries 2012 #4: South Mountain Community Library, Maricopa County Community College District/Phoenix Public Library

Dual Purpose Defies Expectations

South Mountain Community Library | Maricopa County Community College District
and Phoenix Public Library  

Architect: richärd+bauer architecture


Opened 2011
New construction
Main campus library and a branch community library
Size 51,600 square feet
Cost $16.3 million
Student Pop 6,354

Phoenix is on a roll with its dual-purpose libraries. Last year, its Palo Verde Library | Maryvale Community Center was named a New Landmark Library. This year, the partnership between Maricopa County Community College District and Phoenix Public Library yields another winner. Street-side, the South Mountain Community Library wears a public library face, but its back side is all about the campus. Inside, the functions are seamlessly blended and appropriately distributed with a public focus on the entry level and an academic one on the upper level.

The building’s strong recti­linear form, clad in copper planks broken by glass rooftop monitors, elevates the library’s presence as a center of knowledge. These farm field–shaped forms along with abstracted patterns of cotton, sorghum, asters, and citrus on the interiors reference the site’s agricultural heritage.

A treat to inhabit

Leaders of both institutions—college and public library—were determined to give students and community members a special place to call their library. It’s a “jewel [that] ties beautifully to the context from inside out…[and] seems to resonate with the environment it serves,” commented one of the judges.

Whether visitors are camped out for a daylong research project or attending a story hour, this building, with its intense relationship with the outdoors, is a treat to inhabit. A no-­nonsense layout makes way-finding a breeze so that new visitors feel right at home. That’s largely because an initial goal for the project was to promote, not discourage, interaction and connection between students and community members.

Functionality, siting, and copper siding aside, this library is just plain gorgeous inside. Not your typical academic library, it features brightly colored furnishings, like purple Keilhauer upholstered seating and red Herman Miller Eames molded plywood chairs that sit like massed tulips in a garden. Acrylic panels lit by LED fixtures corral “the edge,” an area of public computers on the upper level. A mural “printed” on a Daisy­Cake chain features young adults in various poses and serves to give the teen area privacy.

Light from the ordinary

Materials and finishes engender a sense of lightness and fun. Playful, inventive, and, sometimes, surprising, the designs turned straightforward materials, like copper, wood, glass, steel, aluminum, and acrylic, into anything but ordinary. Digitally printed skylight liners, laser-cut guardrails, and water jet–cut aluminum panels provide endless interest.

Areas that might have been simple exposed drywall are clad in Forest Stewardship Council red cedar planks backed by an acoustical material specially designed by the architect to be quickly installed.

The windows with their integrated circuit pattern complement the copper planks. They are thin, vertical black frames broken by random horizontal rails—referencing the agricultural fields once occupying the site.

Comanagement of the facility happens from adjacent offices on the upper level. That positioning sets the tone for the rest of the services. The joint service desk at the entry is bi­directional: one half faces the campus entrance and the other half faces the public entrance.

A reason to revel

The main level feels more like a public library with its meeting rooms, multipurpose room, children’s area, cybercafé, Friends display, new item displays, writers center, express computers, teen area and lounge, and stacks. The upper level has a decidedly more academic feel, with group study rooms, non­fiction collections, special collections, presentation practice room, studio, quiet study spaces, classrooms, and staff areas. Power and data are easily accessed in the raised flooring, making future changes easy to accomplish.

A neutral palette of greys, browns, and whites forms a calming backdrop for head-turning material uses, iconic furnishings, and color pops that create an enlivening experience for the visitor. Warmth is delivered through the narrow cedar strips on some walls and ceilings, like the conference room, along with splashes of color like a red wall and red chairs in a group study room anchored by a neutral table topped by a securely fastened Flos Spun Light.

On the sustainability side, natural light enters through triple-layered insulated clerestories and light shafts, so even the entry-level floor benefits. That daylight harvesting plus occupancy sensors and a computer-controlled lighting system provide energy savings and a comfortable environment. Furnishings, like the Herman Miller Eames and Caper chairs, and finishes were selected for their low emission of volatile organic ­compounds.

On the exterior, the landscape is treated as cherished space. A sculpture-like mass of stone encased in wire, called a Gabion wall, contrasts with the weathering copper siding. Post lamps by Architectural Area Lighting are kindly directed downward to do their job without light pollution, and beds of low-water-use cacti, still in their infancy, stand at attention next along the entry route.

White Kartel Bubble sofas and kid-sized red Vitra Panton chairs carry the interior color palette outdoors and create a stylish children’s courtyard that respects, without pandering to, adult expectations for youth spaces.

Inside and out, this dual-purpose academic library, with its civic status and academic approach, gives anyone—student or member of the public—a reason to revel in the innovative but graceful spaces that celebrate the desert environment and its agricultural heritage.

Louise Schaper About Louise Schaper

Louise Schaper (, retired Executive Director of Fayetteville Public Library, AR, is a Library Consultant and LJ's New Landmark Libraries project lead.

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