flexiblefullpage -
billboard - default
interstitial1 - interstitial
Currently Reading

Chinatown library unites and serves two emerging Chicago neighborhoods

billboard - default
interstitial1 - interstitial
Building Team Awards

Chinatown library unites and serves two emerging Chicago neighborhoods

The 16,000-sf, pebble-shaped Chinatown Branch Library was built at the intersection of new and old Chinatown neighborhoods. The goal is for the building to unite the communities and serve as a catalyst for the developing area.

By David Barista, Editorial Director | May 19, 2016

Vertical fins provide essential shading for the pebble-shaped library, which is wrapped in glass curtain wall to maximize views and natural light. Photo: Jon Miller, Hedrich Blessing. Click here to enlarge.

One of Chicago’s most significant architectural additions in 2015 was not a booming high-rise at the center of the Loop or a grand new park along the lakefront. It was a small, pebble-shaped, glass-and-steel library that serves as the new beating heart of two neighborhoods on the city’s South Side.

The 16,000-sf Chinatown Branch Library is strategically placed at the nexus of Chicago’s historic southern and emerging northern Chinatown neighborhoods—the intersection of Archer Avenue and Wentworth Avenue—with the goal of uniting the communities and serving as a catalyst for the developing area. It provides much needed public spaces—indoor and out—for the neighborhoods, and makes a bold architectural statement in an area that is rich in tradition.

Chicago Public Library, Chinatown Branch
Chicago, Ill.

+Submitting firm: Wight & Company (AoR, CM)
+Owner: Chicago Public Library
+Developer: Public Building Commission of Chicago
+Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
+Structural: Drucker Zajdel Structural Engineers

Project size: 16,000 sf
Construction cost: $19.1 million
Construction period: May 2014 to August 2015
Delivery method: Design-build

The library’s ovate form makes the most of the prominent, yet oddly shaped site. It adheres to Feng Shui principles by matching the existing alignments of the adjacent streets without creating aggressive corners, and is designed and sited to anticipate a future realignment of Wentworth Avenue that would encroach onto the site.

To reinforce the concept of the library as a civic, educational, and social hub, the Building Team wrapped the structure in an ultra-transparent glass curtain wall, which extends the full height of the two-story structure. With minimal interior walls, the library offers patrons panoramic views of the surrounding neighborhood. Likewise, passersby can see deep into the first floor of the library, especially at night, when the building glows like a beacon.

The interior spaces are situated around the library’s central atrium, which functions as a lounge, exhibition, and pre-function space, and features a curved staircase and a single skylight oculus and reflector above.

Directly behind the staircase is a glass-walled, multipurpose community meeting room that is used for lectures, tutoring, quiet reading, lounge space, musical rehearsal, and special events. Acoustical curtains divide the room into smaller areas, and a double-door pantry allows library staff members to serve beverages to both the meeting room and the entry lobby. The first floor also houses the children’s reading area. The adult reading area and teen spaces are on the second level.

Throughout the library, acoustical fabric screens provide definition and separation when needed. Furnishings and book storage solutions, including eye-height shelving and community worktables, are arranged in a variety of configurations to accommodate multiple uses, informal collaborative areas, and intimate reading options.

The Building Team Awards judges commended the project team for creating an iconic library and much-needed community anchor for Chinatown on a relatively modest budget. (The project’s final cost/sf was within 5% of the similarly-sized, single-story Albany Branch Library completed in late 2014.) 

To keep costs within reason, the Building Team created a highly flexible, open-plan interior scheme, which eliminated excess circulation spaces, single-function rooms, and non-assignable areas. This allowed the team to downsize the original program from 20,000 sf to 16,000 sf. Also, where possible, the team utilized off-the-shelf materials and systems—for example, the simple yet elegant vertical fins for solar shading, and the radiant mat heating/cooling system suspended from the metal decking, which doubles as a ceiling system—to create a truly one-of-a-kind structure without the exorbitant costs associated with a customized approach.

Since opening in late August 2015, the library has quickly become a new gathering place in Chinatown. In the first four months of operation, more than 95,000 visitors checked out some 55,000 items from the branch, an increase of 28% and 70%, respectively, compared to the same time period in 2014 at the previous facility.

“This is a beautiful jewel, built by utilizing tools and building systems readily available to the industry,” said awards judge Bill Kline, VP, Healthcare Studio Leader with SmithGroupJJR, Washington, D.C. “Any team could do this, but this project shows the benefit of actually doing it, and not just talking about it.”


Furnishings and book storage, including eye-height shelving, are arranged to accommodate multiple uses, informal collaborative areas, and reading options. Photo: Jon Miller, Hedrich Blessing. Click to enlarge.

The interior spaces are situated around the library’s central atrium, which functions as a lounge, exhibition, and pre-function space. Photo: Jon Miller, Hedrich Blessing. Click to enlarge.

Related Stories

2021 Building Team Awards | Jan 14, 2022

First public-private partnership project in Veterans Administration history saves $34 million in costs

LEO A DALY and McCarthy Building Companies head the project team for the Omaha VA Ambulatory Care Center in BD+C’s 2021 Building Team Awards.

Building Team Awards | Dec 8, 2021

A performing arts center celebrates a legendary rocker and his birthplace

Buddy Holly Hall in Texas receives BD+C’s Silver Building Team Award.

Building Team Awards | Dec 7, 2021

A rapid response to a health emergency

Baptist Hospital of Miami’s 233-bed Hope Tower receives BD+C’s Bronze Building Team Award

Building Team Awards | Dec 3, 2021

Putting science on display, thanks to a design-build approach

UC Riverside’s Plant Growth Environments Facility receives BD+C’s Bronze Building Team Award.

Building Team Awards | Dec 2, 2021

An academic ‘precinct’ brings arts and sciences together

Wofford College’s Chandler Center for Environmental Studies receives BD+C’s Silver Building Team Award.

Building Team Awards | Dec 1, 2021

Denver sets the bar for water reclamation and reuse

A new administration building for the city’s water utility company scores Platinum in BD+C’s 2021 Building Team Awards.

2021 Building Team Awards | Nov 17, 2021

Caltech's new neuroscience building unites scientists, engineers to master the human brain

The Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena wins a Gold Award in BD+C's 2021 Building Team Awards.

Giants 400 | Aug 11, 2021

BD+C Awards Programs

Entry information and past winners for Building Design+Construction's four major awards programs: 40 Under 40, Building Team Awards, Giants 400, and Reconstruction Awards. 

Building Team Awards | Mar 12, 2021

2021 Building Team Awards Entry Information

Only new construction projects completed on or after January 1, 2020 are eligible. Deadline for submissions: May 14, 2021.

boombox2 -
native1 -

More In Category

halfpage1 -

Most Popular Content

  1. 2021 Giants 400 Report
  2. Top 150 Architecture Firms for 2019
  3. 13 projects that represent the future of affordable housing
  4. Sagrada Familia completion date pushed back due to coronavirus
  5. Top 160 Architecture Firms 2021


Magazine Subscription

Get our Newsletters

Each day, our editors assemble the latest breaking industry news, hottest trends, and most relevant research, delivered to your inbox.


Follow BD+C: