During its first full day of operation last month, the Kew Gardens Hills Library teemed with patrons. College students sporting large backpacks mixed with seniors scanning newspapers in the main reading area. One teen, not wishing to be disturbed, planted herself on the floor in a corner, headphones on. At the extreme opposite end of the building, toddlers ran to and fro, jumping on pint-sized furniture beside a string of baby carriages parked along the nearest wall.
Perhaps it’s the playful design that enticed all these visitors. Or maybe it was the sheer anticipation. Residents of this diverse Queens, New York, neighborhood were promised a new library over a decade ago, making do in a temporary space for the past several years as construction on the much-delayed project dragged on. “I’m just happy people still read books and still need a library,” jokes architect Dan Wood, WORK Architecture Company founding partner along with Amale Andraos.
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WORKac was awarded the commission to expand an existing library here through New York City’s Department of Design and Construction’s Design Excellence Program. While that initiative, begun in 2005, has opened the door for many young creative firms to produce innovative public work, those buildings, like many city-run projects, are often saddled with delays—bureaucratic and construction—and cost overruns.
In the case of Kew Gardens Hills Library, the design portion happened fairly quickly. A much smaller, nondescript library building already existed on the site—an unusual corner lot sandwiched between a commercial strip and a quiet residential area. Zoning regulations had originally required that the earlier building be set back 15 feet from the property line, but a mayoral override allowed WORKac to expand the footprint of the one-story structure to the property line. The architects took the opportunity to wrap the original library with an articulated facade-cum-roof and fill that 15-foot-deep new, partially glazed perimeter space along the sidewalk with areas for reading, study, and play.
“The first time we visited the site, kids would constantly walk by, bringing with them laughter and activity. There were children growing tomatoes in the sliver of garden behind the building,” recalls Andraos. “We tried to capture this and celebrate it: carrying the garden onto the facade through the folded green roof, arraying welcoming reading rooms onto the street but also registering the sense of playfulness and childlike wonder through the architecture.”
The roof dips and rises, reaching its highest point at the corner and descending to the scale of neighboring buildings at either end to reveal an unusually steep planted cover. A single mold produced the wavy black GFRC facade panels, which are meant to evoke a curtain. At the entrance, the panels are turned 90 degrees to form an awning. “When we presented the design to the community, we likened the awning to folding the corner of a book to mark a page,” says Wood. (Anecdotally, the librarians didn’t like that analogy.)
The GFRC panels, specked with mica for a soft, glistening effect, are backed by a thick layer of reinforced concrete, which, somewhat accidentally, ended up serving a dual purpose. “The original design had a series of columns in line with the stacks to support the roof,” says Daniel Sesil, partner at Leslie E. Robertson Associates, who had previously worked with Wood and Andraos on their 2008 installation of giant planted cardboard tubes inside the courtyard of MoMA P.S.1, also in Queens. “But that concrete band, which dipped down to touch the floor, represented a powerful piece of structure.” Instead, Sesil reduced the number of columns in the library from about a dozen to just two—one V-shaped and one canted—as a “direct reflection of the architectural gesture.”
While the design team originally intended to preserve much of the original structure, all that really remains are the foundations and a stretch of white brick exterior wall facing the rear yard. The colorful interior is completely new. Green carpet simulates the planted roof above. Bright orange information desks invite visitors to seek help. Furnishings in vivid hues dot the space. A large multipurpose room—for meetings, classes, lectures, even exercise—is marked by its sunny yellow floor.
The architects, inspired by the community and the love people had for their library, produced an expressive and playful form that breathes new life into a sedate building type, the branch library, that is only becoming more popular rather than less so.
WORK Architecture Company, 156 Ludlow St, 3rd fl, New York, NY, 10002; 212 2281333
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Dan Wood (FAIA) and Amale Andraos; project team: Sam Dufaux, Anne Menke,Jason Anderson, Erica Goetz, Jesung Park, Karl Landsteiner, Evgeniya Plotnikova
Architect of record:
Dan Wood ( WORKac)
Leslie E. Robertson Associates - structural
Tillotson Design Associates - Lighting
S&N Builders, Inc.
Bruce Damonte; Elizabeth Felicella; Ray Adams
Manufacturer of any structural components unique to this project:
Concrete - Ulma Form Works, Inc.'s; Mark Wholesale Inc,; S&N;
Masonry: Masonry Ties- Hohmann & Barnard, Inc;
Metal panels: Aluminum Fascia panels - Kawneer
Metal/glass curtain wall: Startan Industries Corp.
EIFS, ACM, or other: STO Therm EIFS
Moisture barrier: Evonik Industries - GFRC water repellent coating;
Exterior Sealant - Momentive
Curtain wall: Startan Industries Corp.
Other cladding unique to this project: GFRC Cladding Systems, LLC.
Built-up roofing: SIPLAST Paradiene Roll roofing membrane;
Other: Green roof - Xero Flor America, LLC;
Glass: Virginia Glass;
Skylights: Virginia Glass
Entrances: Entrance- Blumcraft
Metal doors: JC Ryan EBCO/H&G, LLC
Locksets: BEST Cylinder;
Closers: Floor Closers- Dorma ;
Exit devices: Blumcraft
Pulls: Dorma Handles;
Acoustical ceilings: Aluminum panels- USG
Suspension grid: Donn / USG
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Reception desks counter top- 3FORM
Paints and stains: Benjamin Moore:
Plastic laminate: Formica;
Floor and wall tile: Bathroom Tiles- Daltile
Resilient flooring: Allstate Rubber Flooring
Carpet: Modulyss carpet tiles : Color, On-line, Step collections ;
Special interior finishes unique to this project: Circular opening metal trim - Spartan Industries Corp..;
Office furniture: Cabinets and tables- Knoll
Reception furniture: Poof seats: Quinze & Milan unholstere in Stamskin Zen
Chairs: Office chair, side chair, stacking chair - Knoll;
Tables: Computer table, reading table, lounge table, foldable table - KNOLL;
Upholstery: Poof seating - Stamskin Zen;
Other furniture: Security Gates- Obid;
Interior ambient lighting: Gammalux
Downlights: Shelves - Bartco Lighting
Dimming system or other lighting controls: Lutron
Accessibility provisions: Entrance Grating - Hendrick Architectural Products;
Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project: Railing - North American Stainless;