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A Bronx Tale

The Bronx Library Center reads like an open book, thanks to a curtain wall façade revealing a flagship branch that's anything but your typical public library.

May 01, 2006 |

The Bronx Library Center is located in the heart of the Fordham neighborhood, the borough's busiest commercial district. The last thing people expect to see sharing real estate with a mélange of discount retail shops, psychic readers, and brick apartment buildings is a shiny new glass box with a roof shaped like the Nike swoosh.

The $53 million library, with its high-performance curtain-wall façade, is indeed a curiosity, and that's exactly the effect the Building Team wanted to achieve. New York City-based Dattner Architects wanted to entice neighborhood residents, school children, teens, and workers into investigating the five-story library. The building's transparency, they hoped, would help to demystify any institutional connotation associated with the typical public library.

"It's like an open book," says Daniel Heuberger, principal at Dattner Architects. "If you're walking down the street you can see what's going on in the library. It helps invite people into the building, especially in a neighborhood like this in the Bronx where a lot of people may not, as a matter of habit, use the library or even think about going there," he says.

This library serves as the borough's flagship branch (the Bronx has 34 branches) and is vastly different from the venerable 83-year-old Fordham Library Center it replaced. At 78,000 sf it's triple the size of the old facility and holds double the collection—but it also addresses the community differently. "It really goes to the heart of what urban libraries have become," says Heuberger. "They are not simply book repositories anymore." Rather, they are busy, active spaces that serve as centers of the community.

Entering this facility isn't a transcendent experience; patrons aren't suddenly isolated from the city's hustle and flow by thick stone walls and tomb-like silence. Instead, the experience is reminiscent of entering a large, modern bookstore. "Barnes & Noble was a name that floated around during design," says Heuberger. "The retail model is what the library competes with. It's what people expect, it's what they're used to, and it's what they associate with books," he says.

So the library presents materials the retail way, placing the "best sellers" and the most popular print and media collections front and center with the check-out (and self-check-out) counters nearby. No librarians shushing patrons here, the first floor is designed to be active and full of energy—it has even been dubbed "the loud floor." For that reason, the architects placed the Teen Center here. It's easy to spot: the flat-screen TVs and the stereo system pumping music through loudspeakers give away its location. The center's multimedia components also include multiple computer areas; the library has a total of 127 public computers and is wired for Wi-Fi.

Library users will have to go elsewhere for their Starbucks fix, though, because the client ruled out the idea of a coffee café, at least for now.

Food and drinks could someday be available on the library's ground floor, called the concourse level. The floor plan includes space for kitchen and pantry facilities to service the exhibition lobby and the 150-seat, state-of-the-art auditorium, two spaces designed for community events and large gatherings.

The staircase leading to the concourse level has an integrated, large-scale art project titled "Portrait of a Young Reader." The massive 17 × 54-foot installation by artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, who used colored glass and perforated steel to interpret a young reader's DNA sequence, is large enough to be viewed from almost any vantage point on the library's first floor. The artwork was funded through the city's "Percent for Art" program, which stipulates that approximately 1% of construction costs go toward public art.

The library's three upstairs reading and research floors are accessed via a staircase constructed of translucent channel glass. Patrons will find children's and adult reading materials, reference books, and a 20,000-volume Latin and Puerto Rican Cultural Collection. (The Fordham neighborhood is predominantly Latino and Puerto Rican.) Classrooms and administrative offices are also scattered throughout the upper floors. On each level, the stacks are located at the building's core; they are organized in five-foot modules to permit relocation of the stacks to any collection floor and to create aisles wide enough for ADA accessibility. Sitting areas and work tables are located along the window walls.

A fifth-floor mezzanine is tucked underneath the library's dramatically upswept roof. The swoosh is a concession to zoning requirements that required a 15-foot setback from the street wall. "The roof could have had a different shape," concedes Heuberger, "but the building is very visible and we wanted to design some type of iconic image that makes the building easily recognizable."

Another of the library's distinctive features, albeit less noticeable than its dramatic roof, is a 1,700-sf reading terrace, which the Building Team envisioned as an outside room. Two 10-foot-high side walls made of a metal grill act as a plant trellis, so after a few growing seasons, the space will be enclosed by two solid "green" walls.

The library's green elements aren't limited to the terrace walls. The building's curtain wall, for instance, allows 75% of interior spaces to meet LEED criteria for the ratio of daylight to illuminated light (while also reducing glare and solar heat gain). Controls that automatically adjust lighting throughout the facility and air handlers with high-efficiency filters and airside economizers help reduce energy costs by 20% compared to standard code-compliant buildings. More than 10% of total materials used in the library's construction were recycled, while more than 90% of construction waste was recycled.

The Building Team is in the process of applying for LEED Silver. "We didn't specifically have a LEED project in mind, but [the New York Public Library system] was interested in sustainable aspects," Heuberger says. "If we don't get all our points, we'll at least have a certified project." That would make the Bronx Library Center the first LEED certified project in the New York Public Library portfolio.

The facility just opened in January, but it's clear that this library will be telling its tale for years to come.

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