The library just to the north...
New Library by Steven Holl Part of Grand Plan for Hunters Point
September 21, 2010
By C.J. Hughes
Public libraries across the country are cutting employees and closing facilities, but the one that serves the borough of Queens, New York, is taking an opposite tack: It’s planning to open one of its largest branches to date, and it’s hired architect Steven Holl to design it.
The city announced in July that it had chosen Holl to design the 20,000-square-foot facility, which will sit by the East River, across from the United Nations complex. The $21 million project, which is set to open in 2013, will break ground next summer. A schematic design will be unveiled in November.
The Hunters Point neighborhood, where the library will be built, has undergone a major transformation since the 1990s. The former rail-yard now features a half-dozen residential high-rises, plus a public school and parkland. Four new apartment towers, a second school, and more parks are planned for a nearby parcel.
The library is expected to offer shelving for 85,000 books and DVDs, as well as a performance space and offices. It also will have slightly more room for community meetings than other facilities do, up from 75 seats to possibly 100, says Peter Magnani, a library director. Also on the site will be an information kiosk for Gantry Plaza State Park, located next door.
“This is a really important building for us from a public-relations perspective,” since it will be visible from so many high-traffic roads, like the FDR Drive and the Queensboro Bridge, Magnani says. “The message it will send is that our library is a beacon of knowledge.”
The Hunters Point library, which will be the 63rd in Queens, will serve a borough that seems to take reading seriously. With 23 million items loaned a year, the library system is, its officials say, the busiest in America. (In New York, the Queens Library operates separately from the New York Public Library, which serves Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, and the Brooklyn Public Library, which covers Brooklyn.)
Holl, who is based in New York, has designed a smattering of projects there, like the Higgins Hall Center, a glass-walled 22,500-square-foot wing completed in 2005 that connects two architecture school buildings at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute.
More recently, the firm designed the Campbell Sports Center for Columbia University, where Holl is a tenured architecture professor. The planned five-story, 48,000-square-foot complex, which will abut Baker Field where Columbia’s football team plays, is to feature offices, and auditorium and a hospitality space, though its design is a work in progress.
The Queens library would be Holl’s first public project. Because funding will come from public sources, the firm’s selection was made by a city agency, the Department of Design and Construction, which picked Holl from among a short list of eight candidates. Those pre-screened candidates participate in the agency’s six-year-old Design and Construction Excellence program, which encourages creative public-works projects.
For architect Chris McVoy, senior partner at Steven Holl Architects, New York’s decision to boost library service while similar institutions reduce it speaks to a larger point: The Internet may not be as detrimental to physical texts as first thought. “A decade ago people were predicting the death of books,” he adds, “and we have found the opposite to be the case.”
Civic Engagement Trumps ‘Shhh!’
Queens Library at Hunters Point: A model of this new branch, designed by Steven Holl and Chris McVoy.
A rendering of the Hunters Point library in Queens as seen from East 42nd Street in Manhattan.
By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
January 30, 2011
There may be no better example of the worrying state of American architecture than the career of Steven Holl.
At 63, this New York architect is widely considered one of the most original talents of his era. His work has influenced a generation of architects and students. And over the last decade or so he has become a star in faraway places like Scandinavia and China, where he is celebrated as someone able to imbue even the most colossal urban projects with lyricism.
Yet his career at home has been negligible. He has had only a handful of notable commissions in the United States, and his output in New York is embarrassingly slight: a modest addition to Pratt Institute’s school of architecture, a cramped (if underrated) gallery at the edge of Little Italy and a handful of interior renovations.
So when the Queens Library Board of Trustees approved the design of the new Hunters Point community library this month, it was a well-deserved and long overdue breakthrough. The project, done in collaboration with Mr. Holl’s partner Chris McVoy and scheduled to begin construction early next year, will stand on a prominent waterfront site just across the East River from the United Nations. It is a striking expression of the continuing effort to shake the dust off of the city’s aging libraries and recast them as lively communal hubs, and should go far in bolstering the civic image of Queens.
The building’s beguiling appearance — with giant free-form windows carved out of an 80-foot-tall rectangular facade of rough aluminum — should make it an instantly recognizable landmark. Seen from Manhattan, it will have a haunting presence on the waterfront, flanked by the red neon Pepsi-Cola sign to the north and the remnants of an abandoned ferry terminal to the south. At dusk the library’s odd-shaped windows will emit an eerie glow, looking a bit like ghosts trapped inside a machine. And late at night, when the building is dark, spotlights will illuminate its pockmarked facade and the windows will resemble caves dug into the wall of a cliff.
Only at the site itself, however, will the optimism driving Mr. Holl’s design come into focus. The library will stand at the western edge of Queens West, a soulless mix of generic apartment towers and barren streets built up in the last decade or so that has neither the dilapidated charm of the old manufacturing neighborhoods to the east nor the density of a real urban neighborhood. (The development’s one saving grace is a narrow park that snakes along the riverfront; its steel gantries, once used for loading boats, are an ode to the area’s industrial past.)
Mr. Holl ’s design is not about escaping this world but transforming it into something more poetic. Approaching from the towers across the street, visitors will enter a tranquil reading garden, a little paradise walled off from the gloomy scene that surrounds it. Ginkgo trees will shade the garden, partly blocking the view of the towers. As visitors move closer to the library, they will be able to see through the lobby windows and out over a reflecting pool and the riverfront park. Other odd-shaped windows will allow diagonal glimpses up through the building and out to the sky.
When I first saw a rendering of this facade it brought to mind Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1975 “Day’s End,” in which Matta-Clark used a power saw to carve big circular openings into the exterior of an abandoned industrial building on the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan. In both works the overscaled cut-out openings are powerfully metaphorical. They suggest the desire to expose private, interior worlds to public scrutiny, and — by seeming to undermine the buildings’ structural stability — they evoke an unstable, ever-changing world.
But Mr. Holl’s design is also a statement about the individual’s place in a larger communal framework. The lobby is a towering space framed on both sides by several big, balconylike reading rooms. To get to them visitors climb a staircase that runs up the lobby’s back wall and past one of the huge free-form windows that afford views of the East River and Manhattan. The stairs lead first to the main reading room, which overlooks the lobby, then cross back to a children’s area or continue up to another reading room for teenagers. Eventually they emerge onto a rooftop terrace, where during nice weather people will be able to attend lectures and performances, or , when nothing is going on, lounge around and enjoy the spectacular view.
The strength of this layout is that it allows Mr. Holl to balance the reader’s need for solitude with a strong sense of community. The main reading room, cantilevering out over the lobby, is the most open. The children’s reading room, the noisiest, is enclosed behind a curved wall with a few small windows cut into it so that kids can look across to the adults or up to the teenagers.
But it is the constant reminders of the larger world provided by the giant cuts through the building’s surface that give the design so much resonance. Mr. Holl is not interested in creating a monastic sanctuary; he wants to build a monument to civic engagement. The views aren’t just pretty; they remind us that the intellectual exchange of a library is part of a bigger collective enterprise. It’s a lovely idea, and touching in its old-fashioned optimism.
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