A renovation project on 5th Avenue opens up a public library facility and resolves the functional anomalies of a former department store to provide high quality spaces for all users. James Parker reports on a fruitful collaboration between two leading practices
On 5th Avenue, sitting adjacent to the famous Beaux-Arts Stephen A Schwarzman Building, the main research library of the New York Public Library, is a more modest, but important part of the overall network.
What was once a deep-planned department store, then the Mid-Manhattan Library, has now been reimagined as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL), by a partnership of Mecanoo and New York firm Beyer Blinder Belle. The design opens up the interior to provide a hugely improved environmental quality to attract new users, and adds a striking green ‘wizard’s hat’ and roof terrace.
Following the completion of its much smaller (although still 16,722 m2) sister, and working to the team’s masterplan, the practices are now continuing with the sensitive updating of the 1911-built Main Branch itself, which is due to complete in 2023. A research library with a vast paper, digital and image archive spanning the history of New York, its top floor houses the Rose Main Reading Room, which in part provided inspiration for the refurbishment of the Mid-Manhattan Library.
Mecanoo, and its founder Francis Houben, have a storied track record in libraries, from the Stirling Prize-nominated Library of Birmingham, to the expansive green roof-covered library at the University of Delft, to the refurbishment of Mies Van Der Rohe’s Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Washington DC. BBB brought vital expertise from overseeing major NYC renovations such as restoration, rehabilitation, and adaptive reuse at some of New York City’s most iconic and treasured landmarks, such as Ellis Island, Grand Central Terminal, and New York City Hall.
The practices were selected jointly by the City for this high-profile project, needed to help bring greater logic to the buildings for thousands of daily users. It was part funded by NYC, but received a large donation from The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the legacy of the Greek shipping magnate.
Elizabeth Leber, managing partner at BBB, says the working relationship between her practice and Mecanoo was “excellent from the start.” She explains: “There is a common respect for each other and for the work, and a spirit of collaboration, directness, and transparency between our firms and between Francine and me as architects, women, and individuals.”
Three teams were established within Mecanoo’s HQ in Delft, but it also set up an office within BBB’s New York base for the five year project duration. The client’s brief, built around the ‘life-long learning’ concept, essentially to provide facilities for all ages, was a “good foundational document,” says Leber. But being prepared a year before their appointment, the architects reviewed “whether it still reflected the space needs and programmatic aspirations of the librarians, curators, other staff, and our leadership team,” says Leber.
The resulting scheme encompassed both buildings, and a third existing structure which was to be closed, so the close collaboration was essential to navigate its complexity; bolstered by extensive use of BIM. This allowed both practices to work on the same models, but also gave the client the opportunity to experience the ongoing design in 3D using VR headsets.
Francine Houben gives ADF an insight into the fundamentals of library design; “A lot of architects think that libraries are about books, but they are about collections.” She explains that tackling both buildings simultaneously enabled the two practices to analyse and resolve their programme issues, across a wide range of physical and digital collections.
There were some obviously illogical aspects to the existing programme.
For example, the children’s library was in the SASB (which is a more discreet research facility), and the picture collection was in the circulating library, so these were switched to the other respective sites.
The overarching intent of the masterplan was to try and provide a connection between the two buildings, given that they are separated by busy 5th Avenue, to form one ‘campus.’ One key means of achieving this was by ranging seating along the north-west facade to ensure users have a clear view of SASB, and literally to raise the roof by 1.6 metres, to enable open air visual connection with the building’s historic counterpart from a new terrace.
The SNFL is the largest lending library in the New York Public Library network, with 1.3 million visitors annually. Being designed as a store, which remained its function until the 1970s, it has a more prosaic, although elegant look. As well as a large lending library, it also accommodates English teaching and other workshops and classes.
As well as taking detail cues from the much-loved research library across the road, the architects also “tried to listen to the logic of its programme,” says Houben, when it came to the redesign of the lending branch. They would need to achieve the aspirations without extending beyond, or altering, the historic envelope. That being said, fortunately the six-storey building was not a ‘designated individual landmark,’ which, says Leber, “gave us more latitude.” She adds that despite this, it has “great bones, good visibility, and a stately presence.”
Despite being well used, says Houben, the six-storey structure’s internal design meant it was “not a healthy building, with dark spaces, high shelving and poor ventilation.” A small pocket park sits to the north, however windows facing it had been filled in, so one key move was to open up views of this precious green space.
The chief design challenges were an “enormous amount of columns,” alongside the fact the building would have to rehouse its 400,000 books, while opening up the dark floorplate and accommodating the children’s library. However, if the architects didn’t use high shelving, which creates its own challenges, “all the floors would be full of bookshelves,” says Houben.
Slightly emulating the ‘hanging book wall’ Mecanoo devised at Delft University of Technology, the architects designed a hybrid floor plan combination – removing and replacing a large part of the building’s rear flank internally, to provide a “Long Room” over five levels, containing tall bookshelves. Houben was also inspired by the Long Room at Trinity College, Dublin, where bookshelves are perpendicular to the axis.
The key idea for this 60 metre long space, was to still make it “browsable by hand,” despite housing a high volume of books, thereby freeing up the rest of the floorplates to have a variety of collections in low-level shelving.
A three-storey atrium was created above the ground floor, with tall windows opened in its red-painted south wall, providing views over the previously unseen pocket park. The atrium separates the retained existing three floors of lending library space from a new compact structure of five slim steel floors running the length of the ‘leg,’ filled with bookshelves arranged at right angles to the open space.
Such an arrangement of shelving, when placed across a main library floor, is “always unpleasant,” says Houben. However, locating it at the other side of the atrium means it doesn’t impede views, circulation, or the overall experience, and in fact imparts a vibrant new feeling to the space.
There is a glazed bridge link at third floor level, and a ceiling mural by New York artist Hayal Pozanti – a subtle reference back to the SASB’s Rose Main Reading Room.
The double-height ground floor, including a reinstated mezzanine, has a lively “grab and go” feel in terms of its library functions. The architects have made a virtue of the massive square columns, painting them bronze to add to the sense of arrival. Self-service desks sit along one side to enable visitors to return books, moving forwards to the reception if they need assistance.
The architects designed long oak tables hung between the columns throughout the building, and chairs, both of which in their materiality and form echo those in the Rose Main Reading Room in the SASB building. The architects also kept the generous existing stairs to the mezzanine level, fitting with Houben’s aim to “make a walkable building.”
Another long table on the ground floor overlooks 5th Avenue, and has been envisaged as a popular, sociable meeting place. The architects created a wide variety of social and quiet spaces throughout the building. Many areas, including the ground floor reception hall ceiling, have slatted timber acoustic ceilings, although some are treated differently. A table adjacent to the lifts on the ground floor, has acoustic slats with LEDs placed between them. Levels five and six contain a Business Library and Adult Learning Centre respectively, connected by a further stair void above the atrium. The feel is a little more “protected” at level six, says Houben, with people visiting the learning centre “sometimes shy, because they don’t speak or read English very well.”
The long tables, connecting the columns, are placed to exploit the grid differently on each floor, to create “different atmospheres” on each, appropriate due to the different collections and users. The fourth floor benefits from the longest table, and a low level ‘seat’ version of the approach can be found on the second floor, enabling long vistas across the spaces.
The long table in the learning centre has an important role, hoped to provide a strong “community feeling,” says Houben, which will help support people with English as a second language. There is perimeter seating throughout, with carefully detailed composite desks running along the windows giving great views of the city.
Attracting children & teens
As they did at the Library of Birmingham, the architects created new voids for young peoples’ library services within a basement/sub-ground floor level. For these user groups, this offers benefits of being closer to street level, “but also protected,” says Houben.
The open plan area still manages to separate the teenage area the younger children, using a multi-function space bookable by either section of the library. Each area has its own well-crafted, generous staircase, and in the case of the teenagers’ area, glazed ‘labs’ where users can learn current skills like how to make a podcast. Space for such studios was granted by the floorplate being larger than other floors, thanks to extending underground beyond the perimeter of upper floors.
Borrowed natural light comes down to the level from the ground floor glazing, and ‘nook’ spaces with special acoustic treatment provide more privacy for children to read away from the more social areas if needed. A further internal glazed partition enables kids to drop books and view a sorting machine grab and process them.
Liz Leber says that there are some key interior design aspects which bestow particular qualities to each area to increase library use. “The technology enhancements in the Teens’ area, the pops of colour in the Children’s area, the professional atmosphere of the Business Library and Adult Learning Centre – these are what we hope will attract New Yorkers and visitors to come and enjoy the many services that SNFL provides.”
A new outdoor space in NYC
The roof terrace has had a series of major interventions, beyond elevating the floor level so that users can look over the parapet at the stunning views along 5th Avenue.
The addition of the ‘Wizard’s Hat’ in green-painted aluminium adds greater presence in the streetscape, conceals plant, and ties in with the metal roofs or ‘chapeaux’ of several historic buildings nearby. Some are in the Beaux-Arts style, like the adjacent SASB, such as one visible from the new roof terrace. Lights placed along the edge of the overhanging canopy give the roof a decorative touch that further echoes Beaux-Arts design.
The ‘Hat’ covers three connectable lecture rooms, plus an events space and cafe. The canopy protects users from the cold but also heat that can challenge New Yorkers, despite the delights of this new, publicly accessible outdoor space in the heart of Manhattan. With the final touch of a sunken ‘secret garden’ on the original roof level, Houben says, “now everyone wants to get married here!”
Houben reports that the clients and users are pleased with what the architects designed to be a “timeless building.” It subtly emulates the SASB (one of the city’s most popular public buildings), using materials like oak and terrazzo, and while the facade has been renovated, and windows renewed, the original 5th Avenue entrance has been kept.
Houben adds that bringing in Mecanoo was a “big risk,” for the city – “why use an architect from abroad?” But in solving the riddle of excavating substantial space from the plan – while housing all the books previously crammed into the structure – and not breaking the envelope, she says: “I thought we really brought something from the Netherlands to New York.” Houben concludes: “Sometimes libraries can be about who makes the craziest building; I think we just made a good building.”