New York City
As you peer through the elegantly glazed vestibule of the new 53rd Street Library in Manhattan, instead of book-lined shelves, you see a large amphitheater with expansive wood tiers. Edged on one side by a stairway, it spills exuberantly down from the back of the street-level lobby to the floor below. This mostly underground facility, designed by TEN Arquitectos (Taller de Enrique Norten), is quietly tucked into the east end of a faceted glass and black-aluminum-paneled, 50-story Baccarat Hotel and Residences by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which opened last year.
You might well ask, where are the books? They are there—though not in huge numbers, because this small branch is part of the trend to turn libraries into digital resource centers and community gathering places.
But the story of the 53rd Street branch also illustrates the tough choices facing civic and cultural institutions in overheated urban real-estate markets. What seems to be a one-story-high volume has replaced an entire building—the Donnell Branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL), a venerable, if shabby, five-story limestone-clad structure built in 1955 and demolished in 2011. The 28,000-square-foot, sleek new quarters is less than a third the size of the 97,000-square-foot original, a transformation that has invited scrutiny and some protests.
In 2007, the NYPL, under financial pressure, realized the soaring real-estate value of the Donnell site, directly across from the ever-expanding Museum of Modern Art—where a residential tower by Ateliers Jean Nouvel is currently under construction, on land sold by MoMA in 2006 to bolster its own bottom line. So NYPL decided to sell its property on the block as well, with a proviso that it could lease back space for a small branch. But this was before the economic downturn.
The first buyer backed out during the 2008 recession, the beginning of an eight-year period that left neighborhood residents and office workers without a branch library closer than a temporary one on East 46th Street. Then, in 2011, a second developer, Tribeca Associates and Starwood Capital, sealed the $67.4 million deal. Yet the plans for the new branch rankled many locals, with the greatly reduced space, and reading rooms that would occupy two underground levels in the reinforced-concrete structure of the hotel/residential tower.
For the architect, the challenge was making a subterranean library appealing. Norten scooped out space for the amphitheater to connect the below-grade spaces with the street as a “continuous topography.” The architect, who has offices in New York and Mexico City, invokes Rome’s Spanish Steps when he speaks of wanting to “negotiate the different levels of the city outside and in” to “generate energy between the people on the street and the users within.” To get as much daylight as possible into the main level belowground, Norten not only glazed the facade but added a skylight and several openings in the floors at the rear of the lobby, so that illumination filters down to the nether regions below.
Visitors enter the library from the vestibule on 53rd Street to find the lobby wraps around the amphitheater in a space 34 feet high; at the rear are also elevators to levels below. The grand stair along the west wall of the stadium seating descends 17 feet to the main reading room. There, books, desks, and computers extend into the far reaches of this 11,000-square-foot level, which includes the acoustically paneled walls of an enclosed community room for 120. A second, airy staircase, fitted with glass balustrades and open risers, takes visitors down to young-adult reading areas as well as an enclosed children’s reading room under the amphitheater.
The amphitheater itself is a bustling place: a video screen under the glass wall along 53rd Street is fitted with headsets so that people may gather and watch events. They may also eat lunch (yes, food is allowed here!), or attend performances, lectures, and films, sans headsets, after hours. The prominence of this space signals clearly that the branch is more of a community center than a traditional library.
While the old Donnell was immensely popular for its world-languages center and its media and children’s collections—now dispersed in the NYPL system—it hadn’t aged well. Its interiors, bathed in a haze of fluorescent lighting and filled with battered wood furniture, will not be missed. Its successor—sleekly crisp and smartly detailed with laminated-glass, oak, and metal surfaces—constitutes a serious upgrade in ambience. Given the challenges of its program, space constraints, and basement environment, the architect has deftly delivered an inviting civic place that is unexpectedly filled with light.
227 West 29th Street, 11th floor
New York, NY 10001
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Enrique Norten, FAIA, Andrea Steele, AIA, partners in charge
WSP CANTOR SEINUK
Code: MILROSE CONSULTANTS, INC
MEP/LEED/IT/AV: COSENTINI ASSOCIATES
Lighting: HORTON LEES BROGDEN LIGHTING DESIGN
Acoustical: LALLY ACOUSTICAL CONSULTING
TURNER CONSTRUCTION CORP.
CAD system, project management, or other software used:
Metal Panels: VMZ (VM Zinc) corrugated/perforated metal panels
Metal/glass curtain wall: Pilkington Planar
Insulated-panel or plastic glazing: Panelite
Fire-control doors, security grilles: Mckeon Doors
Acoustical ceilings: RPG ceilings, Lindner
Demountable partitions: Modernfold Acousti-Seal
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Miller Blaker Inc.
Wall coverings: Eco Concepts/ Felt Studio
Solid surfacing: 3Form
Special surfacing: Get Real Surfaces
Vitra, Herman Miller
Interior ambient lighting: VLT, Axis, Lumenpulse, and Prudential
Downlights: USAI and V2 Lighting
Task lighting: Undercabinet Pantry Ltg - Tech Lighting, table task lights not specified by HLB
Exterior: BK Lighting
Dimming System or other lighting controls: Lutron