In Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo describes a 15th-century deacon who laments that the printing press will lead, eventually, to the end of architecture. The new availability of printed books would logically cause the decline of carved-stone cathedrals, the previously favored method of conveying information to the largely illiterate masses. "Ceci tuera cela," the famous line goes: This will kill that.
These days, many people reframe the debate in terms of the Internet. Will Web-surfing replace the printed book? It's easy to be an alarmist and say yes. After all, we're certainly not building Gothic cathedrals anymore, and the next historical tide may be as clear as the last one.
Still, an alternate view is that architecture, printed books and electronic information need not conflict with each other, but rather can coexist in a synergistic and esthetically provocative fashion. The newly renovated Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh makes this assertion in a design that is at once contemporary, friendly and useful.
Located at the busy intersection of Forbes and Murray avenues, the previous incarnation of the library was nonetheless notoriously hard to find. With a parking garage and a real-estate office below, it had a hidden stairway and an overly protective buffer of hedges above. If you didn't already know it was there, you might never find it. For the renovation, "we wanted to connect the building to the street," explains Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Assistant Director Jane Dayton.
Selecting the often brash but always thoughtful Arthur Lubetz (my employer for most of 1988) meant solving that problem with no half measures. Lubetz enclosed the previously hedged-in upper plaza with an immense glass box that cantilevers two feet over the sidewalk of both Forbes and Murray. Topping this vitrine is a slightly smaller, but higher rectilinear, flyloft of standing seam copper. At the westernmost end of the Forbes Avenue side, a new, glass-enclosed staircase angles in a gleefully adventurous cantilever a full eight feet over the sidewalk. Along Murray, the copper skin fits within the pre-existing limestone frame, punctuated by a few funky angled viewing boxes. The once-hidden library is now a contemporary monument at a corner that both deserves and flatters one. The new structure is photogenic and daring but, at least as importantly, the enclosures that seem dramatic from the street are welcoming and comfortable as places to sit and read. Lubetz realizes what the previous building was wrong about: Sitting and reading are activities to be shared with the street, not hidden from it.
Inside there is a conscious effort to make architecture, information and people straightforward and approachable. This translates into an open building plan, "to make the place as flexible and adaptable as possible," says Lubetz. At the same time, various architectural elements artfully demarcate or inflect space. Exposed beams from the old building, painted red, give a pleasant rhythm to the large space. Vertical ducts here act as space-making columns, perforated wood screens there add warmth and reduce scale in the children's and some reading areas.
Amid this atmosphere of humanizing materials, electronic information is prominent. Color video screens and blue LED signs provide an information architecture -- guides to library collections and policies, or alternately engaging quotations and answers to recently asked reference questions. CLP Director of Information Technology Anne Candreva describes a system in which the design of computerized information in databases and flash programming structures the library experience at least as much as the buildings and personnel do. Yet the goal is still very traditional. Computer screens remind visitors that they can take yoga or hear a lecture at the library. The screens also make it easier to find a book.
"People like to look at video screens," Candreva comments. "We can use that to direct them toward a novel." Maybe Notre Dame de Paris would be good: A patron could read it quietly in one of Lubetz's wall-mounted reading cubicles, and might even realize the architectural niche points purposefully across the street -- toward a view of the gothic revival Presbyterian church.