The Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center, Little Rock, Ark.

May 05, 2016 |

Photo: Timothy Hursley

Owner: Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Ark.

*Architect: Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, Little Rock, Ark.

Structural Engineer: Engineering Consultants, Inc., Little Rock, Ark.

General Contractor: East Harding Construction, Little Rock, Ark.  

*Firm that co-entered the project in the IDEAS2 contest

One of just six 2015 National AIA/ALA Library Award of Excellence recipients, this new Children’s Library and Learning Center is based on experiential learning, where children are educated through hands on activities that teach life skills needed to become responsible adults. Referred to as a “community-embedded, supportive learning center,” this library offers not only books, but also a performance space, teaching kitchen, greenhouse and vegetable garden, and an arboretum. The library director’s challenge was to create a playground without equipment, where nature and imagination combine to create grand adventures on a six-acre site in the heart of Little Rock.

A charrette held with children uncovered a surprising result: their top desire wasn’t the latest video game systems… they were concerned about food security – they wanted to learn how to feed themselves. Children also desired a place that was uplifting, inspirational, and full of natural light, while feeling safe and secure. They wanted a place that “lifted expectations”.

Sited adjacent to an interstate that bisects the city…and divided its citizens 40 years ago, the library acts as a cultural and racial bridge, reuniting this metropolitan city’s children. The site became an education experience, emphasizing teaching hands-on skills like gardening and food preparation. The architecture’s inspiration is based on childhood memories of many in this southern state, growing up in rural areas where playgrounds were really fields, creeks, utilitarian structures such as barns, sheds, and the constructed forts built by their own hands – something inner-city kids rarely experience; children created their own adventures…much like in Pooh’s 100-acre woods. The library acts as a large shed in the woods: its roof lifts to the sky as the site falls, sheltering spaces within while visually opening to the site’s restored ecosystem. Children raise vegetables in the greenhouse and are taught to prepare and cook healthy meals in the teaching kitchen. Bridges extend over wetlands, where plant groupings represent the geographical zones for the entire state. Constructed wetlands filter stormwater run-off from adjacent hospital parking and the interstate.

LEED principals of protecting/restoring habitats, stormwater quality and control, and heat-island mitigation were key in shaping user comfort, support educational aspects of library programs, and aesthetics of the resulting park atmosphere. Site selection filled a significant hole in a neighborhood planning study, which indicated a community center was greatly needed. The neighborhood’s feel has shifted from dilapidated and dangerous to full of life and pride. The architecture speaks of sustainability and the technical nature of construction, expressing all connections and systems, much like a child’s erector set, or to the parents of this generation, Tinker Toys. The building is a teacher.

Steel was the only material capable of delivering this design philosophy. The steel structure’s honest expression and craft of its detailing instead of typically applied ornamentation allowed every column, beam, bolt, and connection to be exposed in the same functional fashion as rural utilitarian structures. Like the child’s erector set, the building stimulates interest in engineering and construction, which will be explored further in future digital and robotics labs. The great reading room’s roof lifts to the north in response to the idea of “lifting expectations.” The entire upper library becomes loft-like, with tree-house study rooms cantilevered and floating in balance over education spaces below. Like a barn, the space is a physical, flexible container where objects can be rearranged as needed. Steel spans allowed only four columns.

The upper library is lifted to interstate level, allowing kids to watch traffic zoom through the trees. Just as importantly, traffic can see the entire open floor of the library. By contrast, at the ground level movement of rustling water supersedes interstate noise; kids feel imbedded in the woods, exploring creeks, paths, and allowing their imaginations to create grand adventures. The building’s base reaches out and touches the water with reading steps, stating it is okay to get toes wet, play on the grounds, and be a kid. Vertical interstitial spaces where the square upper library plan and broader building parallelogram overlap become visual and physical connectors to education programs below and broader landscape beyond. Both open stairs physically extend outside the building envelope proper, giving the feeling of being out in the site. The auditorium “reading steps” serve as monumental stair, hang out space, and a movie/performance theater without seats. Kids take part in all aspects of performing arts: designing/building sets, writing plays, acting, and costume design. Beneath the steps are dressing rooms and a stage shop. The stage bleeds into nature; the backdrop is the wetland. The space hosts symphony quartets, story time, lectures, magicians, plays, and singers.  It is a space for community.

The west façade’s 15-ft-deep “porch” and fritted glazing minimize heat load while maximizing light and views. The roof directs water to large scuppers, flowing as waterfalls to spillways, expressively feeding the wetland. The Tinker Toy-like sculptural tube structure draws pedestrians into the site, leading to the plaza and amphitheater beyond. Extended steel beams at southern roof edges are capped with galvanized steel grates, expanding sun protection. The building’s main use is expressed in a simple, colorful gesture: the giant letters R-E-A-D. The steel letters were made to be climbed on, and have become a favorite family photo opportunity. 

Locally sourced materials exceed sustainable requirements for distance to site and recycled content. The steel structure offered manufacturing within the state with a recycled content greater than 97% -- stating that steel is the dominant construction material of our time and place.  

The children’s library was awarded LEED Gold Certification, a City of Distinction Award for Quality of Life, but most importantly has averaged double the visitors of any of the other 11 branches…bringing life to a once dangerous part of the city. The Library has received Chicago Athenaeum’s American Architecture Award, and the state Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Membership voted the library its favorite project of the year.

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