Speaking Volumes | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Speaking Volumes 

The Carnegie Library's main branch gets a new look



Darwin, Franklin, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens: The names are literally carved in stone across the highest frieze on the facade of the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland. Maybe that's both good news and bad. As the library's founding patron, Andrew Carnegie intended that the great authors occupy a prominent and elevated position. And classical architecture, with over 2,000 years of history in its columns and capitals, was the perfect architectural mode to express authority and permanence, to say nothing of fine detail and subtly crafted space.



Yet, strangely enough, some library users have found the architecture of Italian Renaissance and French Baroque palaces to be slightly intimidating. Even worse, several decades of unsympathetic renovations and reorganizations inside the library have exacerbated the sense of inaccessible reading materials. Shakespeare is up there, but how do I get to him?


The library's most recent renovation has aimed to address some of these shortcomings through contemporary technology and architectural design. Architects EDGE Studio worked in conjunction with Maya Design and with consultation from SO-AD Architects on a $4.1 million renovation, a project that has reorganized and refurbished the first floor of the library, making it more open and clear.


The design creates new openings in six interior arches that had previously been filled in, and enlarges windows to create new lines of sight. The otherwise-intact interior scheme of classical columns and arches has lost its postmodern pinkish palette in favor of a stark white. The space is now more attractive and less claustrophobic. In a previously inaccessible light court, there is a new so-called Indoor and Outdoor Reading Deck. The floor of the outdoor surface, which is surrounded by bamboo, curves upward to form an interior wall and roof, which serve as the periodical reading area, making a fashionable and effective sequence of spaces.


To the right of the library's main entry, there is the new, obligatory coffee shop. Most notably, though, within the reconstituted spaces, a network of irregularly folding glass screens weaves through walls and openings, providing surfaces for a variety of projected images and moving text lines.


EDGE principal Gary Carlough is as enthusiastic about the content and the role of the screens as he is about their role in defining spaces. The electronic network of maps, signs and scrolling text is "how someone understands how the building works, how someone understands how the library responds to their objectives," he says. It reflects a rigorous study of how the library and its users interact. Taking into account some longstanding user difficulties, it aims to make the experience of using the library, whether for its electronic, printed or human resources, a more effective and enjoyable experience. Because of improved way-finding, personnel and resources are now much more accessible.


Also, because librarians can instantaneously program information on screens and moving text lines, "They can encourage visitors to find something more than what they came there to achieve." Carlough adds, "It's consistent with the way we receive information today." The reorganization has ruffled some feathers among certain library insiders and longtime users, but Carlough's presentation and rationale are particularly convincing. Continuing use will be the real arbiter of success.


A positive indication, though, comes in the esthetic qualities of the design. Though the classical details inside could use a bit more color, these symbols of continuity and tradition receive respectful treatment, even some improvement, in the new design. Meanwhile, the translucent and angular glass screens -- which signify the contemporary, transient and fleeting -- provide a cheery and syncopated counterpoint to the old, while not incidentally improving usability of the old building. Both types of architecture are humanized through their interaction with each other and through the goal of serving research and literacy.


Some have expressed relief that the library's new glass screens seem easily removable, but that is hardly the point. Moving text in architecture appeared in Times Square almost a century ago. It may move, but it's not going away. What's important is that the latest technology can serve the longstanding tradition of great books in both information systems and their architectural counterparts. The electronic can serve the canonic.



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