News

LIBRARY PLANNERS PLAY FOLLOW-THE-READER

Page 3 of 5

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?

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