Exemplary, if modest, design in the public realm is directly engaging communities

What is civic architecture today? Some of the best examples are surprisingly modest. The sense of majesty once expressed by public buildings'a grand, domed courthouse overlooking a town square; a temple-front city hall dominating an urban core'is part of the distant past. Public architecture has come down off its podium to engage cities and citizens.

Photo © Michel Arnaud

In looking at new civic architecture for this issue, RECORD'S editors came across a remarkable number of innovative libraries. Not so long ago, the public library was a passive repository of books headed toward obsolescence'along with the book itself. Yet books are still with us, and libraries have broadened their mission: as everyone knows, they have been retooled as providers of digital access, and, increasingly, they are venues for community programs. Both functions are especially vital in rural and poor urban areas, with limited Internet access, and where fewer households have personal computers. The most visible example of this big shift is the amazingly vibrant Seattle Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas of OMA and Joshua Prince-Ramus, now of REX, which opened in 2004.

There are 16,415 public libraries and branches in the U.S., and surveys show that attendance for their programs has been growing every year over the past decade. In a report issued by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project in December 2013, an astonishing 95 percent of those surveyed said that public libraries play an important role in their communities. 'Libraries are serving as conveners, bringing community members together to articulate their aspirations,' said Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of the American Library Association, and they are becoming 'active partners and a driving force in community development and community change.'

Take, for example, the Pico Branch Library in Santa Monica, California, designed by Koning Eizenberg. Set in the midst of a park in an underserved area, it is a magnet for the various ethnic populations in the surrounding neighborhoods. With a greenmarket next to the library, families are drawn by a host of activities'visiting the library, playing in the park, shopping for fresh produce. In East Boston, the new branch library by William Rawn Associates, serves a large community of new immigrants, many of them Spanish speakers. Like the Pico library, the building features lots of glass, making it transparent and inviting. No longer do stern, bespectacled librarians glare and hiss 'shush''libraries today are friendly and active, which means designers must carefully incorporate acoustic controls to keep noise levels down to a pleasant murmur.

Much more ambitious than these branch libraries is the Halifax Central Library in Nova Scotia, by the Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen and local firm Fowler, Bauld & Mitchell. Halifax wanted a downtown civic landmark, which this building provides, with its dramatically stacked and cantilevered volumes, revealing the bustle of multi-levels of activity through a glass curtain wall. Free public libraries are an expression of democracy, and, in Halifax, as with many other such projects, the community was deeply engaged in the design process. As another sign of democratic openness, the Halifax library actively seeks out and shelters some of the city's homeless population when winter temperatures drop dangerously low.

But it's not just in North America or Europe that the library is a significant civic building type. We also look elsewhere at two small libraries that have made a big impact, one in a remote Chinese village leveled by an earthquake in 2012, the other in rural Burundi. Both demonstrate wonderful design ingenuity on miniscule budgets, using local materials and labor.

Fifteen years ago, the scholar Robert Putnam argued in his best-selling book, Bowling Alone, that people were increasingly isolated from one another, citing such factors as suburbanization and the growth of the Internet. But the popularity of libraries points to a new kind of social engagement, one in which communities'made of those who are alike and very different'actively seek and share inventive and inviting places in the public realm, created by some of our most thoughtful architects.