Library of the future: light, activity, warmth

Open bleachers are a social gathering spot at the New York Public Library's Hamilton Grange Teen Center.

Teen Center in the New York Public Library–photo, Rice & Lipka Architects

Today’s Ottawa Citizen has a feature on what other libraries have done in terms of design. This is very timely when comments are welcome on Ottawa’s Central Library concept from now until April 6th (see past post).

Lyn Rice of  Rice+Lipka Architects in New York City has been busy giving libraries around the Big Apple a facelift over the past three years.

Among the firm’s notable projects was the Hamilton Grange Library Teen Center in Harlem, described as the New York Public Library’s “first full-floor dedicated teen space.” Unlike the dark, formal buildings of the past, the modern spaces Rice and his colleagues create are designed to draw not only light, but also people from all walks of life.

As Ottawa moves closer to the renewal of its central library — the topic of a public discussion Tuesday night at city hall — the Citizen spoke with Rice about the evolution of libraries.

Q How do you see libraries in the future?

A  The library is so much in demand as a new civic space, a place that has kind of gone by the wayside in previous decades. And we don’t have public meeting spaces so much anymore. We rely on Starbucks or Barnes and Noble to provide what used to be provided by civic functions and parks. So the library really has a place. Like in New York I know there is in demand for after school care, extra-curricular programs, not just reading programs but all kinds of youth programs, programs for the elderly, and it also becomes a venue for community meetings.

Q Other than books, what do new libraries include these days?

A The library is getting to a place where it’s more about participating than just book learning, but also providing access to individual exploration through internet technology, through gaming. I know at our teen centre we have a glass cylinder (room) where kids can go in and play Guitar Hero and Wii and they get physical and they get loud. They have bleachers for poetry readings and film screenings, niches for studying and lounges for more casual book readings and group spaces for socializing. Food and drink are allowed in a portion of it.

Q How are the building designed differently today?

A (The goal) of pretty much every project we are working on is to add daylight, and have that relationship to the outside … because it’s such a critical component of mental health. There’s really no reason not to have a lot of  daylight. In the ’70s we saw a lot of additional egress stairs, people were blocking up windows, and sometimes without explanation.

Q How should the design make people feel?

A It was a rougher times in the ’70s in New York, everything got very defensive and bars got put on windows, and now we are stripping all of that away. And it’s kind of a metaphor for what I think is happening in general. The formality that might be a little intimidating for not just youth but older people is being stripped away and I think the emphasis is on welcome and warmth and almost having this kind of home for learning and exploring new relationships and information.

Q What helps to keep a library space current?

A There has to be more flexibility in terms of what libraries can provide. Like advanced technology zones that are designed in a way that they can be reconfigured easily (for new technology).

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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