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The eponymous studio of English designer Thomas Heatherwick has unveiled the design of a new public library—the studio’s first­—for Columbia, a sprawling planned community of about 105,000 residents located roughly equidistant between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in Howard County, Maryland. 

Established in 1967 by visionary real estate developer and urban planner James Rouse as a new model city (or as he called it, a “garden for the growing of people”), Columbia is composed of ten self-contained villages, each of them featuring multiple residential neighborhoods. The bulk of the community’s commercial activity is located in the lakefront Town Center—or Downtown Columbia—the most urban-in-flavor of Columbia’s villages. It will be home to the future library, which, as described by Heatherwick Studio, goes beyond a “simple repository of knowledge and book lending” to serve as a “center for the community that will become Columbia’s hub for events, learning, and lending of objects of use such as art and tools.” Columbia’s current main public library, the Howard County Central Branch, opened in 1981. 

Spread across 100,000 square feet, the new five-story library will rise in a central location just steps away from Lake Kittamaqundi, and feature a café, teaching kitchen, makers’ space, and multiple venues for events and community gatherings in addition to more conventional library facilities like quiet study and reading areas. Outside, a series of planted terraces wrapping around the facade will serve as an extension of a neighboring lakefront park. Also adjacent to the future library site is the Gehry, Walsh and O'Malley–designed former headquarters of Rouse Co., a 1974 office building redeveloped in 2014 as a Whole Foods and community health and fitness center. That building is one of Frank Gehry’s earliest commissions, along with several other Rouse-commissioned structures in Columbia including a fire station and the Merriweather Post Pavilion.

aerial rendering of buildings along a lake in columbia, maryland.

Aerial view of the future library at its lakefront location in Columbia's Town Center district. Image by Devisual for Heatherwick Studio

“The building itself appears as if lifted from the surrounding landscape with cascading planted staircases weaving across the facade to reveal the open, double-story atrium where the county plans to host a program of public events,” Heatherwick Studio detailed in an announcement, adding that the library’s vegetation-shrouded design sets out to honor the “Rousian vision of respect for nature for the enjoyment and recreation of the city’s residents.”

“Columbia has always been driven by a socially radical vision,” added Heatherwick Studio partner and group leader Stuart Wood. “This legacy inspired us to evolve the traditional library beyond books and into a new type of community center for broader learning and social exchange. A walkable, planted building that emerges from the lakeside landscape will house an amphitheater for events, play areas, and light-filled rooms designed for working and learning anything from cooking to IT.”

Construction on the new library, which was initially slated to be built at a different downtown Columbia site that will now be used to construct mixed-income housing, is expected to start late next year with an anticipated opening date in 2027. As reported by the Baltimore Sun, the final estimated cost for Columbia’s Heatherwick-designed library is $144 million.