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On Positioning


Seattle Public Library, OMA (Marika Snider)

As our membership is now keenly aware the AIA’s Re-Positioning initiative has preoccupied and permeated nearly every aspect of the Institute’s efforts and communications in 2013. The goal of Repositioning “…to determine how the Institute should reposition architecture, architects, and how to reflect current client and public perceptions…” is ambitious in its scope and claims. For me repositioning raises some fundamental questions about the nature of positioning in architecture, or positions in general, and whether or not the AIA itself is positioned as the best organization to deliver on this promise of change. However, in our discipline’s history, the transformation of the library, offers a way in which architecture, through design, can proactively reposition an institution.

Late October 2012, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many citizens of New York and New Jersey without power and some without homes flocked to their local public libraries. For hurricane survivors, the library was not simply a place to gain access to literature and media, but rather a community center and a public gathering place; an essential infrastructural hub where they could obtain vital information and support in their time of crisis. The role of the library in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is indicative of the transformation of this institution from a private collection available to an exclusive group, to an inclusive public amenity and service, and furthermore, the expression of our culture’s aspirations for collective civic life.

For the first 2800 years of its existence, the library was essentially a scholarly institution and an archive. Its functions were to serve a limited group of people, namely scholars, and to preserve knowledge and documentation for future generations. But the library is more than its media, and perhaps more than any other civic institution, our understanding of the history of the library as well as the way we understand library architecture, is the relationship of the media and the building to the constituency it serves, its public, and how the library grants access to this public.

Beyond the parallel histories of the political, functional, and technological transformation of the library as an institution, the means with which we can trace the architectural evolution and transformation of library is perhaps best articulated through an examination of the building envelope. By looking at the envelope we can evaluate and understand how architecture relates interior and exterior, content and shape, and in the instance of the library, media and the public. And it is through the library where, architecture provides its own history of the library, and redefines what it means for this institution to “go public.”

By looking at three precedents -the Bibliotheque Ste. Genieve, the Seattle Public Library, and the Sendai Mediatheque - we can compare the way that architecture has captured and forecasted the transformation of the library. While not initially a public library, the Bibliotheque Ste. Genieve by Henri Laborite, through a variety of means including architectural organization, manipulation of transparency and opacity, and a graphic façade, begins to collapse the distinction between content and space on the building’s interior.

Two of architecture’s most influential twenty first century examples of public library architecture, OMA’s Seattle Public Library and Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque, extend the techniques of Labrouste to reconsider the physical space of the post-digital library. OMA’s Seattle Central Library re-imagines not only the library’s internal functions, but reconsiders the library’s relation to the city it serves - the combination of which ultimately registers on the building’s envelope, dictating the unusual shape. In the Sendai Mediatheque, Toyo Ito de-materialized the envelope in ways to create a boundless interior that eliminates barriers with the public and reconsiders the space of the contemporary digital library as free floating, flowing, and infinite.

For architecture to reposition anything, we must put design first. And the best design works counter-intuitively, forecasts change, and doesn’t rely on metrics to draw its qualities. Architecture repositions institutions, institutions don’t reposition architecture.

Marc Manack, AIA is Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture and Principal of SILO AR+D. Manack also serves on the advisory board of the Small Projects Practitioners Knowledge Community.

Content from this article is taken from my chapter entitled “Going Public” in the forthcoming book: Discovering Architecture: Built Form as Cultural Reflection (Frank Jacobus, ed.)


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