February 17, 2018

Bringing Boston In | Design4Impact

The average age of users in the newly renovated second floor of Boston Public Library’s (BPL) Johnson Building has come down at least a decade, and it’s easy to see why. Philip Johnson’s massive addition to BPL’s iconic Beaux-Arts style McKim Building opened in 1972. According to the BPL website, the requests for the exterior were that the building should “observe the existing roof line of the McKim Building, and to use material (Milford granite) that would harmonize with the exterior of the existing Central Library building.” The result was a Brutalist monolith, experimental in structure and stark in aesthetic.

The goal of the redesign was to create a library that is flexible and responsive to user needs. “Library services have changed quite a bit since [the 1970s]. You can only do so much to update your service model when you’re constrained by [the] physical building,” said Michael Colford, director of library services. The decision to retain the existing building was determined partly by economics and partly because much of the Johnson Building is protected by the Boston Landmarks Commission. The renovation budget is $75.5 million, $13.9 million of which is for the second floor.

Bright colors transform BPL’s Brutalist Johnson Building. Photo ©Robert Benson Photography

Bright colors transform BPL’s Brutalist Johnson Building.
Photo ©Robert Benson Photography

Color leads the way

The first phase of renovations was completed in February. Now, stepping into the transition hallway from the pillared, gold and white marble of the McKim Building, the first hint of transformation appears in the form of blue carpet. Moving into the Johnson Building proper, that hint becomes an explosion of red, blue, purple, and green. Brightly colored carpet, walls, shelving, and even ceilings seem overwhelming at first glance but settle into a color-coded system, with signage pointing the way.

“This used to be a really big gray expanse, and when the architects came in with all this color we went…eee, that’s bright,” Colford said. The massive granite atrium and skylight, refurbished after the second floor opened, provides natural light and a soothing neutral counterpart to the bright colors.

Shelving end panels and countertops are bright red, signifying nonfiction. Computer screens in two different sizes are mounted on the end panels: smaller ones with keyboards are traditional OPACs, while larger-format touch screens showcase BPL’s digitized collections of maps, prints, and rare books.

All ages access

The floor is organized to manage services to all ages, in a journey from prereaders to adult lifelong learners. Visible connections among areas allow a sense of continuity while providing functional separation. The Children’s Library is zoned by age groups. Attention to the user experience is evident, with a sensory learning wall and tunnels through the stacks scaled for children. A tween space has more grown-up furniture and a blackboard.

Teen Central, across the way, is furnished in industrial chic, with stainless steel mobile shelves, booths, and leather easy chairs. The digital Maker space is staffed by a “technology curator” and equipped with options ranging from comic book software to recording equipment. Next door is the lounge—by far the biggest draw—with four different gaming systems. The two 80″ screens allow either competition or large multiplayer games.

Rooted in the city

Another goal was to remind people of the city outside. “We really wanted to infuse it with a Boston sensibility,” said Colford. This connection was accomplished through the use of symbolic representations of local icons, names of spaces, a much improved connection to the street, and echoes of the McKim Building. Work spaces in the adult area are called the Boston Common (large work tables with task lighting and power connections) and Boylston Common (a laptop bar that spans the space in front of a window overlooking Boylston Street). The massive arched windows, part of the original Johnson design, were reglazed, removing the heavily tinted glass, and the mullions were replaced with fewer, smaller-profile pieces.

In the children’s area, internally lit lion cubs are a nod to the well-loved stone lions on the stairway in the McKim Building. Brightly colored ­“Storyscape” facades are reminiscent of Back Bay brownstones. The tween space features a whimsical rendering of the iconic ­Zakim Bridge. The Bridge, as the area is called, serves as a symbolic bridge between the children’s and teen areas. The latter contains a reclaimed Boston street light and repurposed transit signs.

More to come

The renovation of the Johnson Building will ultimately transform the entire facility. The rest of the project, including the first floor and mezzanine, is scheduled to be completed in summer 2016. Boston can look forward to a new community learning center, a business and digital innovation hub, and expanded technology.

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

This article was published in Library Journal's December 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.