NEW YORK – The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL) was featured in the New York Times on July 4 for its architecture. “After three years of construction and $200 million, the library system was ready to reopen its largest circulating branch in spring 2020,” the pandemic delayed the opening and the SNFL “after a $55 million gift, finally threw open its doors to unlimited browsing in June. Its theatrically expressive heart is a dramatic atrium billowing upward from the second floor, where book lovers will delight in a vista of the vast circulating collection of up to 400,000 volumes,” the Times reported.
With “extensive programming” coming soon, SNFL is among the branches of the New York Public Library (NYPL) which fully open on July 6, along with the Queens library system and Brooklyn a few days later, the Times reported.
“The sociologist Eric Klinenberg made libraries Exhibit A in his 2018 book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life,” the Times reported, noting the author’s argument that “‘social infrastructure’ — public places where people mingle and interact — can help reduce crime, isolation, and even strengthen communities.”
“That’s why the Stavros Niarchos now delights book obsessives but also offers lines of computers atop long tables and a dizzying array of technology training, career exploration, life-skills help, and personal enrichment in its 180,000 square feet,” the Times reported, adding that NYPL President Anthony W. Marx called this “a more proactive model of the library” on a recent walk-through.
SNFL “has risen from the ashes of a much grander $300-million plan in 2012 by the London architect Norman Foster to bring the circulating library into the main library, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, diagonally across Fifth Avenue, and sell off the Mid-Manhattan building,” the Times reported, noting that “Foster would have emptied a dense network of stacks in the flagship and carved out a grand atrium uniting the circulating collections with elaborate stairways. Inconveniently, the stacks also held up parts of the building and the cost to intricately insert replacement supports, as well as researchers’ vehement resistance to moving most of the material in the stacks offsite — and blowback by critics — caused the plan to implode in 2014.”
“The architect of the transformed Mid-Manhattan is Francine Houben, founding director of Mecanoo, based in the Dutch city of Delft,” the Times reported, adding that “Houben is known for such challenging library designs as a largely subterranean facility at the Technical University, Delft, in which a wedge-shaped roof covered in grass erupts from the ground to form a sloping lawn popular for lounging and sunbathing.”
“For the Mid-Manhattan branch, she partnered with Elizabeth Leber, the managing partner of the New York architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle” and “Houben sometimes underplays her hand,” the Times reported, noting that “without bright-orange banners suspended from the nondescript limestone envelope of what was once the Arnold Constable & Co. department store, you would never know the SNFL was a library.”
The SNFL’s design includes “the dramatic atrium” which “amply rewards a visit,” the Tines reported adding that “Houben and Leber painstakingly cut 85-foot-long by 17-foot-wide openings through the third and fourth floors so that visitors could see into all three floors of the circulating collection at once. These floors are expansive, with sleek white walls, low book stacks and an abundance of seating filled with daylight by the oversize store windows.”
“In clearing the library of the detritus of decades, Houben turned an inconvenience, the building’s forest of columns, to advantage by cladding them in varying materials to create a hierarchy that helps people find their way around and provides a variety of places to sit: around long, broad mixed hardwood tables attached to the columns or work surfaces that run along the perimeter enabling contemplation of the city through the big windows,” the Times reported, noting that “each floor has separate rooms for group work. Bridges connect these areas across the atrium to five levels of floor-to-ceiling stacks that the architects have squeezed into the atrium’s three stories. This wall of volumes forms a glowing shrine to the book accessible to all. Abstract colorful shapes dance across the ceiling, an invented 31-character alphabet by the artist Hayal Pozanti.”
“Above the collection floors the spaciousness and daylight is leavened by a corporate sobriety in three floors devoted to programming that helps people address essential knowledge gaps,” the Times reported, adding that “a smaller version of the atrium is reproduced to join a fifth-floor Business Center with the sixth floor Learning Center,” and “like many of the neighborhood branches, the Stavros Niarchos programs will address community needs.”
“The sixth-floor classrooms and breakout spaces offer business basics, career advancement, and networking opportunities,” the Times reported, noting that “the importance of such programs has grown rapidly in recent years, with attendance doubling to two million since 2012.”
“Improvements to the Schwarzman building are intended to clarify its relationship to the circulating collections, including a planned entrance and terrace on 40th Street, where it is closest to the SNFL,” the Times reported, adding that “a Center for Research and Learning will be built in the main building, where children and students will learn about research techniques and the value of engaging with archival sources,”
“Peoples’ lives will take them to one building or the other according to need,” Marx told the Times.