It's too bad that Victor Hugo never met Louis Kahn, because the 19th-century romantic novelist and the 20th- century modern architect might have developed a perfect assessment of the newly renovated Carnegie Library in Woods Run, completed to designs by Loysen Kreuthmeier architects. The reinvigorated structure is elegant and welcoming, but perhaps unexpectedly so given its origins in Pittsburgh's urban-renewal era.
"Taste has done more damage than revolution," Hugo thundered in outrage at the changes to his beloved Notre Dame cathedral. But he might as well have been talking about the North Side of the 1960s, where dismal slab towers and the massively carbuncular Allegheny Center Mall swept away acre after acre of historic buildings and neighborhoods in the name of Modern Architecture. Did every new structure of the era have to suck so vindictively?
For the first few years of its existence, the Woods Run library could give no definitive answer. The 1963 structure, by Michael R. Cozza architects, certainly contrasted with the traditional brick-and-wood buildings in its surroundings, mainly because of its low, zig-zagging roof. Sitting on a rare plateau in the ravine-like neighborhood, it didn't destroy its surroundings; it just stood aloof from them, with seemingly impenetrable brick walls inside and out. "It had a kind of unfriendly demeanor, belying the fact that it's a wonderful organization," says architect Karen Loysen.
It's a bit ironic that the profusion of raw brick and window-blocking bookshelves may have taken inspiration from Kahn, who, like other architects of his day, used both features in his work. Yet he is also the architect who frequently asked, "What does the building want to be?"
The answer was not "intimidating fortress."
Loysen, working with project architect Sallyann Kluz, believed that the "best thing we could do was to open it up and find that pavilion-in-the-park sort of image." So out came the brick on three sides of the building. And, says Loysen, "We flipped the books to the inside and allowed people to be near the windows."
This really is what the building wanted to be. Now it is a genuinely pleasant place in which to read, and the architectural qualities of the concrete frame and roof are much more apparent. On the exterior, the tree-like columns are more clearly visible, with their upward-reaching "branches" that form the folds in the roof. Inside, the correspondingly folded spaces of the ceiling are more apparent and distinctive thanks to less-clunky light fixtures.
In fact, midway through design, the client uncovered an early design scheme for the building that showed it with the expansive glass that it has today, confirming the architects' suspicions.
The new openness is a wonderful change, but it is only part of a greater scheme of renovations in the $2 million project. The building needed to be reorganized so that adults and three separate groups of children could have separate reading areas. A large but infrequently used meeting room gave way to a smaller one adjoining more efficiently organized administrative spaces.
In pursuit of LEED certification for environmental friendliness, the mechanical systems have been made much more efficient. A more delicate network of ducts replaces a single "monstrous" old one. And while the low ceiling height of a groovier era did not allow for a full raised-floor system (containing ducts and wiring), a shallower raised floor, for wiring only, accommodates the technology-driven changes that will come. The building now has added insulation in the walls, and shades outside to modulate direct sunlight.
Followers of numerous outstanding Carnegie Library renovations will enjoy adding this one to their list of favorites. It proves another Lou Kahn maxim: "A man with a book goes to light." But it also raises the fate of the Allegheny Regional Branch of the Carnegie Library, on the North Side, where damage from a lightning strike closed the historic structure for several months. The standards of this modest Woods Run renovation have been so high that the Carnegie Library simply must restore the older branch to its former glory. As Hugo said, "Great buildings, like great mountains, are the work of centuries."