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."