Georgian Elegance, 21st-Century Technology Joined in Reborn Brooklyn College Library
Stuck behind the lovely 1937 neo-Georgian building was an unlovely 1959 addition. A typical 1950s box with kind of turquoise-blue porcelain panels and an aluminum curtain wall, without any of the warmth of the original building, Howe said. Inside was an even sorrier sight. The first word that came into my mind was moribund, he recalled. It was really in worse shape than anything I had worked on, just about falling down. And yet incredibly wonderful activity was going on in there, in spite of the fact that the ceiling tiles were hanging down and the vinyl tiles were peeling up from the floor.
It is much more than a traditional academic library, said Barbra Higginbotham, Brooklyn Colleges chief librarian and executive director of its academic information technologies. Its a comprehensive and complex information center that includes the college archives, a new media center, and both academic and administrative computing. The bare facts of the work are impressive and quickly told: 105,000 square feet added to the old buildings, for a total of 277,650 sq. ft.more than six acres. Seating capacity has increased from 600 to more than 2,300. Space for nearly 1.7 million books has increased by 37 percent. Students can now access satellite digital connections, streaming video, centralized broadcast of digital materials, and video and audio connections at 500 new PC stations and in 22 group-study rooms. And a 145-seat auditorium, two multimedia classrooms, and a faculty training room are now available.
But these impressive figures do not convey a sense of the interior spaces and the countless visual amenities and thoughtful touchesthe towering windows that overlook the lily pond, for instance, or the Tuscan warmth of the interior colors, the comfortable carrels and the welcoming group-study rooms.
There was no question that the librarys contents and staff were both of excellent quality. The kids that did get into the building knew one thing, architect Howe said. The library had an extremely professional staff, totally dedicated. There were architectural treasures as well, including superb murals created under the auspices of the U.S. Works Progress Administration and handsome original chandeliers.
But clutter tended to obscure the old buildings finer points, and the tattered conditions certainly discouraged students. I never stayed there to study, said Susan Goldberg, a senior in public communications who lives in Sheepshead Bay. It was very cramped; everyone was in each others way. You could feel them breathing all around you. Nadia Kruler, now in her third year of pre-med studies in psychology, agreed: The only place to study was where everyone walked in and out. It felt more like a hallway than a library. Howes architectural firm, Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, is one of the nations oldest. It was founded in 1874 by the eminent architect Henry Hobson Richardson, and quickly achieved a distinguished reputation for the design of public and university buildingsand libraries in particular. In 1888, two years after Richardsons death, the firm received the commission to design Stanford Universitys original campus in the firms famed Richardsonian Romanesque style. Other campuses with buildings by the firm include Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Vanderbilt, Wellesley, and the University of Chicago.
We probably do more libraries than any other firm in the country, Howe said. Brooklyn College is one of the most exciting campuses Ive worked on, with its cultural diversity and the beautiful campus buildings.
Howe set himself the task of making a building so beautiful that no one would ever want to tear it down. He began, of course, by tearing downor at least skinningthe 1959 addition, stripping off the orange-brick facing and the turquoise glass. This drastic step was not necessary to preserve the architectural unity of the campuss central green, since the addition had been tucked mercifully out of sight behind the elegant original library. Anyone entering the campus by the main gate might miss it entirely.
But Howe noted that more than half the students entering campus came via the Hillel gate, which meant that the orange-brick addition was the first campus edifice they saw. It created a short gauntlet of ugliness before one reached the Colleges grand central green. So I was interested in creating a library that spoke to those coming in the back door, Howe said. If the library was going to be a signature building, it would have to be designed to have an impact on those students coming in the Hillel gate.
The orange brick had to go and, of course, be replaced. In the best of all possible architectural worlds, the new bricks would exactly match the original ones from the 1930s. This turned out to be a real problem. I learned a lot about bricks, Higginbotham said, alluding to elaborate efforts to achieve a match.
In the end, Sandy Howe said that, although the match would be good, it couldnt be perfect. The bricks in the original building were coal-fired, and now bricks are oil- fired. Coal-firing imparts a slight blue tinge, and this is missing from the new bricks.
Fortunately, the Librarys interior spaces did not require such elaborate efforts to match new construction to old. Whereas the exterior had to be part of the family tartan, Howe observed, the interior had to have a contemporary feel, so that students would feel it belonged to themthat they could experience it as a product of their own time.
The old building surprised Howe. His first idea was the go straight through the front door and to tear out and replace the main stack core. I found I couldnt, he said. It is an incredibly efficient space. Tearing it out would have more than doubled the footprint of the new construction, so the stacks remained. They now anchor the whole.