LIBRARY PLANNERS PLAY FOLLOW-THE-READER
The new downtown library is still just a block of clear plastic. It sits on a scale model of central Phoenix, centered in an orange splotch that represents the proposed library site. Built to scale, the block represents the approximate square footage of the new library, which was funded by city voters in a bond election in April 1988. During the past several months, architect William Bruder has been meeting with people interested in the city's library of the future. The scale model of downtown is one of his visual aids. The clear block is symbolic of the architect's approach to the project. Will Bruder is being careful not to design this building until everybody gets a say. "Literally, not one line is on paper," says Bruder, picked last fall by the Phoenix City Council to do this building. "I've put down at times ideas of relationships forming in my mind, but no more."
Good thing. This library has to please a lot of people.
Phoenix librarians want a simple enclosed space, an unadorned warehouse for books. Local architecture tastemakers want more. They'd like Bruder's library to be a bold design statement, a building that would bring international attention to Phoenix.
City officials would like to see that too, but more than anything they want a building that won't raise a stink.
And library users, of course, want places to park. Considering the demanding audience this building will play to, the selection of Bruder as lead architect is a genuine leap into the unknown by city fathers--though Bruder's joined by a large cast of supporting technical experts for the project, including DWL Architects and Planners Inc., one of the Valley's biggest architecture firms. Though his designs for residences and workplaces around the Valley are well regarded by clients and architects, even internationally, Bruder's never done a building on this scale.
A bearded, longhaired fellow who apparently prefers comfortable work clothes to neckties and blazers, he doesn't seem to be the kind of person a city would trust with its $43 million library. But Bruder's recent designs for a couple of branch libraries in the Phoenix system are undeniably well-done. That Bruder got this project means that nothing about it will be boring. (See related story.)
By the fall, Bruder will have to produce his first set of drawings. If the city council approves his plans, the process moves forward and several more sets of drawings will be done, each more detailed than the last. Sometime in 1992, there will come a groundbreaking ceremony. In 1993, a 300,000-square-foot library will rise from a hole at Central and Willetta. If all goes according to schedule, the new library will open its doors early in 1994.
A total of $43 million was approved for this project by Phoenix voters (Bruder's fee: $1.1 million), a group that has become increasingly sensitized to big civic projects. Right now, the only thing most of those voters know about the library is that the Park Plaza Apartments will have to be demolished to make way for its construction. Many of Park Plaza's tenants are elderly, and they all face eviction. When Phoenix voters compose their critiques of the new downtown library, it's not too likely they'll remember much about the project's detailed fact-gathering phase. But they will remember the Park Plaza. This will have to be one great building.
"I have two predictions," says Ralph Edwards, the city's head librarian. "One, it will be interesting. Two, it will probably be controversial."
It's a little ironic that Bruder's plastic box looks exactly like the kind of library Ralph Edwards would like. When Edwards dreams of the perfect library, he dreams of a box. When the city first started making plans for a new library, way back before the bond money was even approved, Edwards was lobbying for something simple. "Our ideal . . . is just a warehouse," he says. Simplicity of shape and maximum flexibility are paramount, Edwards says, not atriums or courtyards, features typically much loved by architects. "I want to avoid having a big hole in the middle of the building."
The current library, which has a big hole in its middle (a lovely atrium that surveys say is popular with patrons) plus a large courtyard, was built in two phases. Though some of its interior spaces are considered handsome, it's much too small (straining to hold 800,000 volumes; the new building will house 1.5 million) and not at all practical as a machine. For example, the light fixtures in the high ceiling of the library's foyer can only be reached via cherry picker. Librarians have to wait until several bulbs burn out before they can ask maintenance in for a change.
Based in part on frustrations with the current central library, Edwards' hopes for a new building are less than poetic. He'd prefer to get lots of unbroken floor space. "That kind of building," he admits, "isn't very aesthetically interesting."
JOHN MEUNIER, a local advocate for aesthetically interesting buildings, has a different vision for the new central library. He loves courtyards. Fountains, atriums and gardens, too. "It would be wonderful to take a book out into a courtyard and spend an afternoon under a tree next to a fountain reading," says Meunier, dean of the Arizona State University college of architecture and environmental design. Meunier's opinion isn't mere academic posturing. He's a key member of the Central City Architecture Design Review Panel, a volunteer group picked by the Phoenix city manager to oversee designs for new downtown buildings. The city is attempting a major overhaul of its cultural profile, with plans to rehabilitate the Phoenix Art Museum and Phoenix Little Theatre complex, plus new construction on science and history museums. The design review panel will eyeball blueprints for each of these projects, and Bruder will face the panel at least four times while he plans the new library. "A client can come along, as Ralph Edwards did at the beginning," Meunier says. "He said, `I know exactly what I want. It's a big square building, seven stories high, with a bunch of elevators and stairs and toilets in the middle, and leave the rest to me. I'll arrange it as it makes sense.'
"Against some criteria, that may be a very efficient building. It sounds to me like a recipe for alienation. . . . It seems to me that the worst libraries are the warehouses for books, layers of ten-foot-high spaces covered with drop ceilings, with fluorescent tubes shining down on rank after rank of bookshelves. "A book sitting on a bookshelf doesn't make a library. It's the interaction between the reader and a book."
Somewhere between the libraries desired by Edwards and Meunier comes the library desired by its users. To catalogue those desires, Bruder's team met with two of the city's village planning committees, an arts district committee, an arts commission and a Central Avenue merchants group, among others. Meetings were also held with teenagers, a large group of handicapped library users (among the designers of the library, the words "differently abled" are substituted for "handicapped" in all references) and advocates for the homeless, among others.
"For me, the whole process of doing architecture starts with listening to people," says Bruder. "With every group we've drawn to the table, we learn something new."
From the homeless group, Bruder and his team learned that the transients who use the library as refuge tend to be independent but neither violent nor dangerous, and use the newspapers and periodicals in the library for "reality checks" of life back in their hometowns. The biggest problem with this group seems to be its collective aroma, particularly in the summer months. Bruder hopes to solve this problem chiefly through improved ventilation in the new building.
"Differently abled" users instructed the architect on thoughtful use of informational graphics, lighting and floor covering (deeply padded carpeting is like mud to some wheelchair users). The teens asked for meeting rooms large enough for four to six students working on group projects for school. The meeting with differently abled library users drew approximately fifty participants, but not all of the public meetings were such a success. The one meeting planned to elicit opinions from the general public was very poorly attended, despite being promoted prominently at the library's front entrance. Participants--about a dozen total, most of whom appeared to be librarians--sat in a semicircle in front of Bruder, Jim Rhone and a few other design-team members. Bruder led the discussion, which focused for a good while on desk height. The library staffers expressed differing opinions on the topic, some preferring lower desks (believed to be less intimidating to patrons), some preferring the higher models. Bruder concluded the discussion by saying that a desk-height experiment was currently under way at one of his branch libraries.
Also discussed were the new library's expected audio-visual needs, ideas for the children's library and security problems. When it became evident that library-insider talk was beginning to dominate, Bruder went around the room asking for opinions from each of the few civilians present. A few weeks later, at a meeting called specifically for library staffers, Bruder again led the discussion. At one point early in the meeting, the architect became visibly uncomfortable when head librarian Ralph Edwards walked to the front of the room to stand facing the staff. Bruder, concerned that the boss's presence might throttle the staff's true feelings, shoved a chair Edwards' way across the front of the room. Edwards continued standing, but the point had been made.
MDNM Bruder, who has to work closely with Edwards, risked offending or embarrassing the head librarian in front of his own staff. Bruder's concern for honest dialogue outweighed, for a moment at least, his desire to act as a team player on this once-in-a-lifetime project. FROM THE CITY'S PERSPECTIVE, the lengthy fact-gathering period is a bit of an insurance policy for this high-profile building. Pressure is heaped onto this particular project because: * The central library will occupy an important piece of land. Bordered by Central Avenue on the west and the new Deck Park on the south, the building will rise at least five stories over Central, and sit at the southern end of a planned "arts district," which will include the newly redone Phoenix Little Theatre and Phoenix Art Museum, and an "arts walk" past artists' studios and galleries. The south end of the library will be partially built out over the Deck Park.
* Mistakes on the library would be, in many cases, fifty-year mistakes. This project calls for a grand design that can be constructed in phases. The current bond money will pay for a 300,000-square-foot building, but Bruder will be paid to design a building that can later be expanded to 700,000 square feet. The first phase will have to stand on its own for the next couple of decades, or until the city needs to expand again. * If every penny of the $43 million approved for this project isn't visible from the street, future voter approval of public-works projects may hang fire. In times when city projects such as amphitheatres and ballparks come under scrutiny--when zoning hearings are televised live and draw thousands of spectators--voter-approved bond money is a precious commodity. Should this project fail, city politicians have already crafted a fall-back position. It's called "programming," the "process," building a library "from the inside out." The public has been invited into the design discussion at every step. Meanwhile the architect, teamed with a conservative design partner and a large support staff, gets constant supervision while he goes about designing the building. The city council, through its staff, is looking over Bruder's shoulder the whole time.
Of course, other cities do this differently. Phoenix has, in the past, done it differently as well.
Chicago's new downtown library will be the product of a costly, well-publicized architecture competition that drew designs from five heavy-hitting, internationally respected architects. Each architect delivered a building design whole, his "vision" for the project unclouded by rap sessions with teenagers or reference librarians. Models of the libraries were put on public display, and a panel of celebrity judges then picked a favorite design.
The hype surrounding the Chicago library design-off was gigantic; the whole splashy event became the subject of a recent episode of Public Broadcasting System's Nova, which reported that the winning design, though far from completion, is already considered by many to be a major flop. Phoenix's last big design competition, which produced architect Barton Myers' dazzling-but-doomed vision for a new city hall, also attained major-flop status. That competition's winning design has been abandoned, and the city government is currently planning to erect a fairly plain office building as its new official home.
"That is the single reason why we have a different process [for the library]," says ASU's John Meunier. "The City of Phoenix experimented with the competition process and it didn't work.
"Competitions have several problems. One of them is the durability of political will to realize the competition. . . . The Phoenix City Hall competition became a political football. Like so many political footballs it never scored a touchdown. It was fumbled."
Carrying the ball for the city on all four major cultural projects is Jim Rhone, whom Bruder describes as "a bureaucrat with a soul." Rhone attended most of the public meetings and kept notes of the dialogue. "Everybody talked about parking," he says. "No big surprise."
More than once during that process, a suggestion was made that the new library design somehow incorporate, somewhere near its entrance, statues of lions. This opinion, along with all the others, will be registered in a report Rhone is preparing on the process. The request for big bronze cats was about the wackiest suggestion made during the discovery stage of library planning. For everyone but the most-involved planners, the document will not be exciting reading. Still, Rhone is confident that the opinions gathered will help shape Bruder's plastic block into a good building, inside and out. "Frankly, we're plowing new ground here," says Rhone. "As we moved along, it verified to me that we were doing the right thing."
ONE BIG PROBLEM with planning for the library of the future is understanding the future of libraries. Information technology isn't going to sit still during the next four, twenty or fifty years. Bruder's design will have to incorporate not-now-known changes in information technology. In fifty years, the outer limit of the period this new building should serve, libraries could be changed dramatically. Books could be mere historical relics by then, warehoused for use by the small percentage of the population that still would want to read them. Drastic changes in information storage and retrieval are surely going to take place. What cultural changes will occur to alter a library's user-base? What unforeseen technologies will shape the next library expansion, the one scheduled for about 2010?
"Books still account for the most significant amount of space in a library, and I think they will in twenty years," Edwards says. "We'll still have lots of books and magazines and all that stuff."
Based on interviews with the architect and others involved, as well as a sampling of some of the suggestions made during opinion-gathering meetings, it's possible to predict some of the unusual, exciting or just plain weird features to be built into phase one of Phoenix's new central library.
For starters, the card catalogue is history. Computer terminals located around the building will allow library users to electronically cruise the stacks, an activity that almost surely will be made easier by a more user-friendly approach to book storage. Bruder is well aware that an aging population will change the shape of public places. Someday, he says, "we are all going to be differently abled." Based on his discussions with that user-group, Bruder will devote special attention to lighting, signs, desk height and aisle width. Ramps likely will replace many steps. Some chair seats will be raised to make seating more comfortable for arthritis sufferers.
Chief among gripes with the current library are book-drop inconveniences and parking hassles. A drive-up book drop is a possibility (a conveyor belt would run returned books back to the circulation department) in the new building, which probably will have its own parking garage of approximately 500 spaces, to be used by both patrons and staffers.
The current library at Central and McDowell shares 260 spaces with the Little Theatre and Art Museum. Bruder estimates that more than 90 percent of the new library's patrons will arrive by car. By the time the new building reaches its twenty-year expansion phase, a rapid transit terminal could be included in the plan.
Expect the library's video collection, now not much more than a drab pile of black boxes, to look more like your corner video store.
Service lines in reference areas will be replaced by take-a-number systems now used by ice cream stores and butcher shops.
Self-guided tours of the library will be conducted via cassette-tape headsets, much like tours of Carlsbad Caverns.
Somewhere, there probably will be room for a snack bar. SO, BRUDER'S clear-plastic box begins to look a little like a shopping mall. That's not too far off, he says. Malls are just about the only places where the people congregate anymore, and this library should be just that kind of attraction. The central library already currently educates and entertains a diverse mob of citizens. The new library, riding high above Central Avenue and bordering the splashy new Deck Park, is expected to be an even bigger draw. "Of all the cultural facilities, it's going to the one most used, by an enormous cross section of the population," says ASU's Meunier. "Everything from the homeless to the best educated, wealthiest member of the community will use that library in one way or another."
And people like Julian Dotson, age fifteen, who on a recent day was sitting just off the old library's little courtyard, paging through a paperback. He had a Walkman plugged into his ears and a book report due in a few hours. Dotson, who didn't know a new library was in the works, didn't seem all that pleased with the idea of making the new library into more of a popular gathering place, complete with its own snack bar. The library is a place he comes to get things done.
"I come to get away from everything," says Dotson, a freshman at North High. "Nobody really comes here, and it's quiet. I have no quarrels with this library. It's big enough. It's got everything I need."
Aside from the Park Plaza hubbub, there's been little significant press coverage of the new library. Other library users interviewed recently by New Times seemed equally surprised that the old building will be replaced. They also were equally unaware of the city's supposedly elaborate "programming" procedure of gathering public opinion.
Forrest Spencer, age 27, was interviewed at a computer terminal in the library's basement. An assistant program director at KFYI radio, Spencer says he uses the library for "research and fun." His most recent trip came on a day off from work, to look through magazine stories. "I first fell in love with the library in grade school," Spencer says, adding that he's been following news accounts of the new library project. Better parking, an expanded selection of fiction and more out-of-town newspapers are Spencer's priorities for the new building. To Spencer, public give-and-take about the library's exterior design--the building's role in changing Phoenix's reputation with the international architecture community--isn't as interesting as discussion of the building's guts. "More important is the contents, what's inside the building," he says. "As long as it's a workable building, I think people will be satisfied."
That's also the opinion of Phoenix businessman Tass Tassielli, interviewed at a reference table in the business and sciences section, who estimates he uses the library at least once a week, usually bringing his kids to check out books and videotapes. On the whole, he has "no complaints" about the current library, which he also regularly uses to research projects for his company, Avanti Marketing.
Like a lot of library users--but unlike the design experts, politicians and special-interest groups--Tassielli seems easy to please. The one improvement he would like to see is an expanded selection of video movies for children. "My kids like Old Yeller," he says, "and you only see that movie on the shelves every two or three months."
end part 2 of 2
The selection of Bruder as lead architect is a genuine leap into the unknown by city fathers.
When Ralph Edwards dreams of the perfect library, he dreams of a box.
"I want to avoid having a big hole in the middle of the building."
"A book sitting on a bookshelf doesn't make a library. It's the interaction between the reader and a book."
Bruder, concerned that the boss's presence might throttle the staff's true feelings, shoved a chair Edwards' way across the front of the room.
Mistakes on the library would be, in many cases, fifty-year mistakes.
"The Phoenix City Hall competition became a political football. Like so many political footballs it never scored a touchdown. It was fumbled."
The request for big bronze cats was about the wackiest suggestion made during the discovery stage of library planning.
For starters, the card catalogue is history.
Service lines in reference areas will be replaced by take-a-number systems now used by ice cream stores and butcher shops.
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