A dungeon, a prison, a bunker—locals had many nicknames for Philip Johnson’s landmarked 1972 addition to the central branch of the Boston Public Library (BPL), none of them flattering. (Johnson himself called it “a fortress without windows,” which seems less outrageous when you realize that it was surrounded by vacant lots and rundown properties when it was constructed.) Last year, Boston-based William Rawn Associates completed a sweeping $78 million, 156,000-square-foot renovation that improves its connection to the branch’s renowned 1895 Renaissance Revival building by McKim, Mead & White and, perhaps more critically, opens up the imposing granite building to Copley Square for the very first time.
BPL spent a year soliciting input on the project from the local community and its millions of patrons, and formed an advisory committee that transformed their feedback into key principles for the city-funded effort. (Topping the list: fun.) William Rawn was then selected via an interview process, and the architects continued to reach out to key constituents as the design progressed. “Given the library’s central location, the outreach effort was necessarily broad and inclusive all along,” says Rawn, whose firm had designed two other branches for the BPL.
The ambitious renovation comprised upgrades to the library’s numerous collections, a revamped lecture hall, and ADA improvements, among many other enhancements. But the new heart and soul of the building is the double-height Boylston Hall (a “big urban room,” says Cliff Gayley, co-principal on the project), which enlivens a 210- foot stretch of the busy street it’s named after. Gone are the fencelike granite slabs and mirror glass that once shrouded the ground floor from public view; in their place are crystal-clear, low-iron glass walls that lure passersby into the dynamic interior via three new entrances. The space houses a welcome center, borrower services, new and notable titles in print and digital forms, seating areas, public computers and research kiosks, a café (yes, food is allowed), and a glass-enclosed broadcast studio for local public radio station WGBH.
With its remarkable transparency, the redesign of the BPL celebrates its role as a forwardthinking public institution that elevates civic life. Boylston Hall itself has become a popular meetup and hangout spot, attracting a larger and more diverse crowd to the building than ever before. It’s a vibrant tribute to the nation’s first large municipal library, whose motto, “Free To All,” could be the resistance theme for our times.