Judging Buildings

When I first saw this building from a distance, its rooftop ornamentation made it stand out from its surroundings. I didn’t have time to investigate on that trip, but my curiosity was peaked. I built up a story about the long history of this building that I surmised started out as a produce terminal in the 19th Century.

Six years later, I walked past the building on my way to my hotel. I was surprised to see it was a public library. It seemed unusual for a former marketplace to be converted to a library. As soon as I checked-in, I hurried back over to explore this unique building.

Despite entering immediately into a narrow, angular, white hallway, I held onto my belief that it was an old building. The hallway felt odd in that narrative, but I quickly forgot that feeling once I emerged into the main lobby with its high ceiling and sparkling white marble floors, counters, and walls. I found a directory and decided to make my way to the map room several floors above. This “room” turned out to be a corner in an open floor plan. The corner featured one row of computers and a full-service counter. Unable to browse a collection of maps, I made up a research question and asked the staff if they had maps to help. While one librarian looked in the back room for hard copy maps and another showed me their digital resources, our conversation ranged from how awesome maps are to the history of the building.

I was surprised and embarrassed to learn that the library was built in the 1990s. The rooftop sculptures of owls stand out so much in part because they were designed for a taller structure; the final floor of the library was cut from the project due to the financial crisis. I suggested it was nice that the designers included such details as the sculptures and marble countertops. The librarian pointed out that the marble was faux and did nothing to alleviate the industrial feel of the building.

Looking again, beyond the cleanliness and sparkle of the space, I noticed the low ceilings and uniform bright white light throughout the open floor plan. I also noticed the distortion of the wooden escalator enclosure. The proportions would have been better balanced if the enclosure reached twice as high to the next floor.

This discussion with the librarian made me question my default reactions to the space. My initial reaction of excitement for a unique example of adaptive reuse changed to awe when I thought that a new building, open to the public, incorporated expensive historical material. But this reaction did not match reality any more than the first. Both assumptions blinded me to the cramped spaces with migraine inducing lighting. This experience also taught me that it isn’t just the material that matters. Incorporating the materials, whether faux or real, while leaving out the related historic design elements such as natural lighting and high ceilings does not lead to a better building.

I came away with a better appreciation for my neighborhood library branch that combines modern materials (such as curtain wall windows and bamboo flooring) with thoughtful design. From the outside, I cringe at the modern angular look, but inside it is a warm and welcoming space. Apparently, the lesson of never judging a book by its cover applies to buildings, too. Never judge a building by its facade.

7 thoughts on “Judging Buildings

  1. I started poking around, curious what cosmic forces would lead them to sacrifice interior space while keeping the opulent crown. I found this unexpected bit on the library’s own website: “Dedicated October 4, 1991.”

    (Unless they liked it so much that they made copies…)

    • Yeah, I think I goofed on the date. I was certain he meant the Great Recession when the librarian talked about the need for the budget cuts, but I could have been influenced by my age and experience of recessions. I also saw the 1991 date after I published the post. I’ll have to revise.

  2. It seems the architect only intended one owl over the main entrance. Under the guidance of 2 sculptors who were consulted for the project, it became five owls plus various surrounding decoration. One of the two sculptors, Raymond Kaskey, was born in Pittsburgh… and studied at the Carnegie Mellon School of Art.

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