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Ginnie Cooper | 2013 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture

By Sara Fernández Cendón

This year’s Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture honors Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian and executive director of the District of Columbia Public Library. Cooper and the other 2013 Thomas Jefferson Award recipient are celebrated for demonstrating a commitment to quality design that recognizes public buildings and places as an integral part of the nation’s cultural heritage.

The Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture recognize achievements in three categories: private sector architects with a record of excellence in the design of public facilities, public sector architects who promote design excellence within their agencies, and public officials or other individuals who have furthered public awareness of design excellence.

Category Three: Ginnie Cooper

Ginnie Cooper is the recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Award’s third category, which recognizes the role of elected officials, public administrators, and institutional leaders who through laws, policies, or advocacy encourage the production of high-quality architecture. As the leader of the District of Columbia Public Library, Cooper is credited for the recent renaissance in library construction and renovation in the nation’s capital.

After earning a master’s degree in library science from the University of Minnesota, Cooper began her career in 1970 as a librarian in Washington County, Minn., outside the Twin Cities. From 1976 to 1981, as library director of the Kenosha Public Library, in Wisconsin, she worked with local officials to build the first new library there in 60 years. Library use doubled as a result, and funding increased proportionally.

She then spent nine years at the Alameda County Library, in Fremont, Calif., and later served as library director at the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Ore., the largest library system in the state. During her tenure, 1990–2003, she secured voter approval for two capital bonds to renovate the 1912 Central Library and improve all 19 branch libraries. In a letter supporting her nomination, Thomas Hacker, FAIA, who worked with her on some of these projects, describes her as “the ideal client for an inspired designer. She not only supports meaningful and expressive work, she asks the questions and adds the insights that make it possible to reach high levels of architectural expression,” he wrote. She was named Layperson of the Year in 2001 by the Portland Chapter of the AIA.

From 2003 to 2006, Cooper was the library director of the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library, which includes a main library and 59 neighborhood branches, managing an annual budget for capital projects ranging from $13 million to $20 million.

In July 2006, Cooper joined the District of Columbia Public Library as chief librarian and executive director. She was charged with transforming the public library at a time when its building stock was “in ruins, and scheduled replacements were uninspired,” according to the nomination letter by Jonathan Penndorf, AIA, president of AIA D.C. After 14 library renovations, and with three more projects in the pipeline, Cooper has the local architecture and design press wondering if she’s “the hottest thing in D.C. architecture,” according to Washington City Paper real estate and architecture reporter Lydia DePillis. “In only five years, Cooper forcibly injected not just the libraries, but the entire city, with the biggest shot of popular Modernism it’s ever seen, and likely ever will,” DePillis wrote.

Key to Cooper’s success in D.C. was her ability to attract well-known architects who designed iconic buildings that stood as community beacons. “Our public buildings were one of our proudest achievements, and now Ms. Cooper has revived that tradition for a new century,” Penndorf wrote. Among the firms Cooper has retained for the overhaul of D.C.’s libraries are London-based Adjaye Associates; The Freelon Group, based in Durham, N.C.; New York–based Davis Brody Bond; and several D.C.-based firms, including CORE, Bell Architects, and Wiencek + Associates.

Cooper’s approach has resulted in buildings that the community has noticed and embraced. “In a city filled with federal memorials and museums, she has created a series of local landmarks that are both architectural achievements and an enormous source of community pride,” wrote Tommy Wells, Washington, D.C., councilmember and chair of the Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation, and Planning.

On the hard metrics of library use and activity, the buildings are also scoring more than satisfactorily. In April 2010, the Dorothy I. Height/Benning Neighborhood Library opened in a new building designed by Davis Brody Bond, and within just a few months more than 5,000 new customers signed up for library cards. At the Tenley-Friendship Library, designed by The Freelon Group, attendance at children’s programs tripled shortly after the new building opened in January 2011. Philip Freelon, FAIA, president of The Freelon Group, praised Cooper’s vision in a letter of recommendation to “not only deliver the much-needed library services, but to do so with vibrant and inspiring architecture.”

Forging ahead with the task of transforming the library system, Cooper is currently exploring possibilities for the renovation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the central library that opened in 1972, and one of the last buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe.

Critics, too, have praised these new additions to D.C.’s traditionally conservative architectural landscape. Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott described the new Francis A. Gregory and William O. Lockridge/Bellevue neighborhood libraries—both designed by Adjaye Associates—as “spectacular” buildings that “deserve to be on any serious architectural tour of the District.” Because the buildings are located in economically distressed areas, Kennicott said they are evidence of “service and good governance, and a source of hope for a society that too often sees economic inequity as an inevitable.” His conclusion: “If you pass by a bit of architecture in the District that seems uncommonly interesting and effective, the chances are it’s a library.”

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Photo Credit

  • Ginnie Cooper. Image courtesy of Ginnie Cooper.
  • Georgetown Library in Washington, DC. Image courtesy of Joi Mecks.
  • Dorothy L. Height/Benning Library in Washington, DC. Image courtesy of Paul Rivera, ArchPhoto, Inc.
  • Anacostia Library in Washington, DC. Image courtesy of Mark Herboth Photography.
  • Francis A. Gregory Library in Washington, DC. Image courtesy of Eric Taylor, Wiencek & Associates.

Ginnie Cooper

Category Three

Any AIA member, group of members, component, or knowledge community may nominate candidates for category three of the Thomas Jefferson Awards.

Public officials or individuals who by their roles and advocacy have furthered the public’s awareness and/or appreciation of design excellence in public architecture are eligible to be nominated in this category.

The candidate may be a non-architect who by his or her support and actions has significantly influenced or contributed to the promotion of quality design in the public sector.

More about Ginnie Cooper

2013 Thomas Jefferson Awards for Public Architecture Jury

  • Steven Spurlock, FAIA, Chair
  • Wnuck Spurlock Architecture
  • Washington, DC
  • James Binkley, FAIA
  • Reston, Virginia
  • Brian F. Cavanaugh, AIA
  • Architecture Building Culture LLC
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Aisha Densmore-Bey, Assoc. AIA
  • Aisha Densmore-Bey, Designer
  • Boston
  • Lonnie Hoogeboom, AIA
  • Houston Downtown Management District
  • Houston

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