2021 Twenty-five Year Award
Firm: Will Bruder Architects | DWL Architects
Owner: City of Phoenix
Location: Phoenix, AZ
As a part of an urban environment in a striking setting, the Burton Barr Phoenix Central Library quickly became an icon of late-20th century modern architecture when it joined the city’s skyline in 1995. Evoking the mysteries of the surrounding desert landscape in its form and materials, the library’s site on Phoenix’s Central Avenue, straddling the city’s vibrant downtown and cultural center, remains a top destination for architectural pilgrims from across the globe. But beyond its architectural pedigree, the library represents a source of great civic pride for the region and was an early adopter of critical sustainable strategies in public architecture.
A vision for the library emerged in 1988 when former Mayor Terry Goddard, committed to advancing the city’s architecture, issued a bond to fund a new central library. While Goddard hoped to attract both national and international contenders for the commission the following summer, he did not have to look far to find the joint team of Phoenix-based Will Bruder Architects and DWL Architects + Planners. Having already made important contributions to the city’s architectural vocabulary, the newly forged bruderDWLarchitects received a unanimous vote by the city’s selection committee.
To invite the community to take an ownership stake in the project, the team launched a comprehensive series of public meetings and programming sessions, exploring every functional aspect with the city librarian, staff, and other key officials, even leading representatives on a one-week, five-city tour of recently completed peer facilities in other states and Canada. The team did not broach an architectural concept until the program was well understood, the site analysis complete, and deep technical research logged. Eighteen months of careful testing of ideas, full-scale mock-ups, and endless refinements passed before the library’s engineering and technical documentation was wrapped.
“Burton Barr Central Library reflects the values and diligence of an engaged public, led by visionary civic leaders committed to making a mark of quality, inclusion, and sustainability in the urban core of Phoenix,” noted current Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego. “As the first among equals in a robust city-wide library system, Burton Barr Central Library is loved and admired by the staff and everyday users who flock to it each day as well as students and devotees of architecture.”
Despite its origin as a man-made artifact, the 280,000-square-foot library, with its weathered-copper clad and sculpturally curved east and west facades, has been likened to the many mesas found throughout Arizona. Rising above the low-slung urban fabric of the residential and commercial neighborhoods surrounding it, the library’s glazed north and south facades provide a fitting contrast and reveal its true nature, during the day and at night, by offering glimpses of its one million volume collection and the energy of its patrons.
"Burton Barr Central Library reflects the values and diligence of an engaged public, led by visionary civic leaders committed to making a mark of quality, inclusion, and sustainability in the urban core of Phoenix."
Inside, the library was organized simply as a “warehouse of knowledge” across its five levels. Patrons can enter from either the west or east, where stainless steel clefts in the facades mark the entrances. Waiting to greet them are luminous passages that slope to the library’s 90-foot-tall, skylit atrium as well as three high-speed glass elevators and a translucent grand staircase that rises from a reflecting pool. The architecture helps simplify the layout of the library’s collection and enhances accessibility. On each level, the glazed north and south walls provide sweeping views of Phoenix’s urban grid and the mountains that lay just beyond it. On the fifth level, which houses the library’s nonfiction book collection, community tables that can accommodate up to 320 readers sit below the reading room’s 32-foot-high skylight-punctured roof structure.
Working closely with Ove Arup & Partners, known today as Arup Group, the architects envisioned the library as a hallmark of passive design from the outset. Designing before the creation of the LEED program for sustainable design, the team optimized passive energy goals through high-efficiency and innovative mechanical and lighting solutions, chiefly 12-inch precast concrete walls, solar-shaded glazing systems, and sophisticated gas chillers. In 2010, 15 years after it opened, the library received a LEED-EB Silver rating plaque.
"The uses of libraries, worldwide, have of course evolved substantially over the past 25 years. As this nomination makes clear, the Phoenix Central Library has proven highly adaptable to these changes and serves its purpose as well today as the day it opened."
After 25 years of heavy use and necessary shifts in functionality, the library still bears its architectural identity and reflects the need for libraries that can accommodate change. Will Bruder Architects has served as the library’s on-call architect since it opened, leading the repurposing of its spaces and the addition of new departments, such as its college and vocational resource, located where microfiche and outdated reference collections once lived, and its meeting and workspace intended to nurture startups.
“The uses of libraries, worldwide, have of course evolved substantially over the past 25 years,” wrote Jonathan Moody, AIA, in a letter nominating the library for the 25-Year Award. “As this nomination makes clear, the Phoenix Central Library has proven highly adaptable to these changes and serves its purpose as well today as the day it opened.”