News

LIBRARY PLANNERS PLAY FOLLOW-THE-READER

Page 2 of 5

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dave Walker