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Who'll design the New Library?

Who'll design the New Library?

The March 30 “Kick Off” of the design competition for Nashville’s new downtown public library wasn’t as dramatic as the starting gun at the Run for the Roses. Architects from the three finalist design teams—each of which represents one of New York’s premier firms—didn’t hunker down over their desks and start furiously sketching away at the conclusion of Mayor Phil Bredesen’s remarks. Instead, like the rest of the audience, they heard Bredesen talk about his vision for a new main library on the site now occupied by Church Street Centre.

And yet the kick-off celebrated a signal moment in Nashville’s recent architectural history. A design competition is a relative rarity for city projects hereabouts. Prior to the highly publicized competition to pick an architect for the arena, local government had staged design competitions for Riverfront Park in the early 1980s, for the Davidson County Courthouse, completed in 1937, and for the Carnegie Library in 1901.

Nashville’s library is part of a nationwide renaissance of buildings for books. In city after city, a new public library stands as the most dramatic new downtown landmark and the latest civic icon. These libraries are conceived not as mere reference centers, but as social centers, with meeting rooms, coffee shops, and art galleries to draw people back to downtown. What’s more, the architects of these new libraries, if not exactly household names, are the stars of their profession. Their mere association with a project gives it an added luster.

Nashville’s competition is a case in point. The choice of the three finalists suggests that this is a high-stakes project. The three teams consist of:

♦ Michael Graves, Architect, of Princeton and New York, in partnership with the Brentwood firm of Thomas Miller & Partners.

♦ Robert A.M. Stern Architects of New York, in tandem with Hart Freeland Roberts of Brentwood.

♦ Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and Associates of New York, paired with the local Gould Turner Group.

Michael Graves’ fame as a postmodern designer was established with the 1980 Portland Building in Portland, Ore., and the 1982 Humana Center in Louisville, Ky. Since then, his practice has combined civic and corporate architecture—most recently a series of office towers in the Far East—with the design of interiors, furnishings, and decorative accessories. His portfolio includes a number of libraries, from the 1982 San Juan Capistrano library, with its stylization of the Spanish Mission vernacular, to the “academical village” of the Denver Central Library, completed in 1996.

Frequently abstracting his forms from the classical tradition, Graves describes himself as a “figurative architect.” He rejects form-follows-function modernism, choosing instead to create what he calls “humanistic as opposed to mechanistic” architecture. Graves’ work utilizes the more accessible and figurative symbols of our society—the Seven Dwarfs as a colonnade for Disney’s corporate headquarters, the ground plan of the Athenian Acropolis inscribed on the floor of Emory University’s Museum of Art and Archaeology, a derrick-like timber structure at the center of the Western History reading room in the Denver Central Library.

As an architect, Robert A.M. Stern is probably best known for his residences, especially for houses that hark back to the Shingle Style beach cottages that proliferated on the East Coast in the 1910s and ’20s. More recently, Stern has focused on larger compositions—including courthouses, banks, hospitals, and libraries. Like Graves, Stern has had a part in creating the wonderful world of Disney architecture. His design for Disney’s Feature Animation Building features Mickey’s hat from the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Fantasia above its entrance. Stern’s design for the Gates Computer Science Building at Stanford University relies heavily on the style of the surrounding context, illustrating Stern’s belief in the continuity of architectural traditions.

Stern comes by the historicism of his designs naturally, since he claims equal if not greater fame as an architectural historian. Now the director of Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Department, he hosted Pride of Place: Building the American Dream, a 1986 PBS series that was later published in book form. He is also the author of New Directions in American Architecture, one of the first studies that compared and contrasted the abstract formalism of the International Style with the historical allusionism of postmodernism.

One critic characterizes the early work of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer (HHP), as “functionalism in drag.” Buildings such as the 1968 Marx Theater in Cincinnati “defunctionalize” ducts and joists, airport landing lights, and concrete blocks by celebrating them as formal objects.

Later projects, such as the 1993 renovation and expansion of the Los Angeles Central Library, show that HHP can design in historically compatible styles. For the Los Angeles project, the firm carefully restored a 1920s adobe-like structure designed by Bertram Goodhue, and created a new addition that more than doubled the library’s size. That addition is partially slung underground so that Goodhue’s pyramid top can dominate the site, and it is styled in a way that is clearly contemporary without making a strong contrast to Goodhue’s original.

Malcolm Holzman, who would be the lead designer on the Nashville project, designed the new Louis Stokes wing of the Cleveland Public Library. This building is a more obvious hybrid of past and present. The contemporary glass oval at the center of the wing is framed by masonry towers that refer to the neighboring Beaux Arts building of the original library.

HHP’s style is less easily characterized than the styles of the other two finalists in the Nashville competition. “Americans have come to think of style as Ralph Lauren-like, something that is immediately characterizable,” Holzman says. “Our firm is not constant in things like what we make the building from. We don’t always use yellow brick and square windows, for example. We tend to be constant in other ways, like the creation of dynamic interior public spaces.”

On June 23 these three teams will present their proposals for the library, and the jury will announce the winner on the following day. The jurors include architects Graham Gund of Cambridge, Mass., Frances Halsband of New York, and the Indiana-based Walter Blackburn, as well as Los Angeles city librarian Susan Kent. Tennesseans on the jury include Margaret Ann Robinson, chairwoman of the Metro Library Board, and Marlene Davis, dean of the College of Architecture at UT-Knoxville.

The mayor has also asked other individuals to serve on the jury, but they have not yet accepted.

All three finalist teams are dominated by New York designers. But the whopping 27 original applicants—the arena competition drew less than half that number—included firms from all over.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s heirs at Arizona’s Taliesin made a showing, as did William P. Bruder, architect of the copper and crystal warehouse that is the new Phoenix Central Library. Antoine Predock of Albuquerque, well known for the starkly beautiful lines of the Las Vegas Central Library, was also a contender.

The international community was represented by Snohetta Associates of Oslo and Legorreta Arquitectos of Mexico City. The Legorreta firm designed the new library in San Antonio, which is painted a bright red that has earned it the nickname of the “Big Enchilada.” (Ricardo Legorreta earned himself the nickname “Valentino” during his visit to Nashville, and insiders say several women observers were seen to swoon during his interview.)

The review committee reduced the list of 27 to seven after a consideration of the architects’ credentials. According to committee member Rita Hamilton, who is assistant director of the Nashville Public Library, eachfirm’s experience in designing complex civic buildings with a budget similar to Nashville’s was of primary importance. Nashville’s new library will offer approximately 288,000 square feet of space—four times the size of the current building. It has a construction budget of $50 million. The committee, which also included state architect Mike Fitts along with representatives of the mayor’s office, the Metro Development and Housing Agency, the Metro Arts Commission, and Heery International, the firm that will manage the project, gave heavy weight to each firm’s demonstrated ability to bring a project in on time and at cost.

The committee conducted personal interviews on March 20 with the seven semifinalists, cutting the number down to three. Despite his personal charm, and probably because of his south-of-the-border design style, Legorreta did not make the cut. Other firms purged from the list include Davis Brody Bond, designers of the much admired Eskind Library at Vanderbilt, and Kohn Pedersen Fox, architects of Nashville’s SunTrust tower. Moshe Safdie of Boston was eliminated because he was in Israel and was unavailable for an interview. Mike Fitts, the state architect, says he was “disappointed” by Safdie’s absence, because Safdie’s Library Square in Vancouver incarnates the dramatic civic presence that Bredesen and Metro’s library staff so obviously want to see on Church Street.

The Nashville design competition did not call forth all the major stars in the architectural firmament. Robert Venturi and Frank Gehry did not enter. And Richard Meier was presumably still too busy giving interviews about L.A.’s Getty Center to make a run for it. Nevertheless, the list of finalists and also-rans testifies that Bredesen and library director Donna Nicely intend Nashville’s downtown library to be an architecturally important monument.

In his remarks at the kick-off, the mayor explained why he has made the library a high-profile project. It’s legacy time for Bredesen, and, as he said, he doesn’t want to be remembered primarily as the guy who brought “sports-oriented entertainment palaces to Nashville.”

“In government, it’s hard to do things that have some permanence to them,” Bredesen said. “Fifty or 100 years from now, I don’t know if we’ll even be playing football in this country. But I know that the parks we’ve added and the library will still be of civic use.”

The mayor emphasized that he expects a library with design values that extend beyond the merely functional. “I believe in the expressive power of architecture, and I want the library to speak to our dreams and aspirations,” Bredesen said, asking the design teams to come up with “a multi-century building” with “good bones” that future citizens will want to preserve. “A lot of people support putting an arts center in the downtown post office because they think it’s a structure worth saving,” he said. “I haven’t received one call about keeping the Ben West library.”

Bredesen also had more specific requests for the competing architects. He asked for an entrance with “a sense of drama,” not a library that could be “confused with a corporate headquarters or office building.” The mayor also asked for “a stunning main reading room.” He called for a plan that incorporates public art and suggested that the library’s Nashville Collection be provided with a setting that is as unique as the Western History reading room of Graves’ Denver Public Library. Bredesen rounded off his wish list by asking for a kid-friendly children’s room and computer work stations that are more integrated into the design than “a table with a computer on it and cords sticking out the back.”

An selecting an architect for the new library, Bredesen took the competition route because it is more likely to yield a building that meets his great expectations. Roger Schluntz, the University of Miami architecture professor who was chosen in December as the professional advisor to the competition, agrees with the mayor’s decision. “A well-run competition, and I stress well-run, has the ability to enhance the probability of design excellence,” Schluntz says. From the public perspective, “a design competition raises the level of interest and expectation. And an educated citizenry raises the bar for the architects,” he explains.

Design competitions are fun for the onlookers because they are architectural horse races. The architects’ portfolios are the design equivalent of the Daily Racing Form. Ever since the finalists were announced, Nashville architects have been placing bets on who will be first across the finish line.

For the architects who are actually in the race, however, competitions are time-consuming and expensive. Metro gave each of the five finalist firms in the arena competition a subsidy of $10,000 for participating. Yet several were rumored to have spent over $200,000 preparing their entries. And after all is said and drawn, there is only one winner.

Schluntz—who has directed several architectural competitions, including the one for the Denver Public Library—says the Nashville competition has been set up so that there are controls on the expenses for the participating firms. The number of hours a firm can spend on design is limited by the relatively short turnaround time, and no highly detailed model is required for the final presentation. A subsidy of $50,000 has been promised to each of the three firms.

Both Karen Nichols of the Graves team and Alex Lamis of the Stern team praised Nashville for including two workshops with library users as part of the competition process. “Designing a building when you are handed a program book and there’s no intermediate dialogue with a client is a little like whistling in the dark,” says Nichols. “The Nashville competition is closer to a regular architect-client relationship.” Nichols and Lamis agree that humanizing the streets surrounding the Church Street Centre parking garage will be a definite challenge. “It’s difficult to turn a garage into a civic building, something that’s timeless, yet of the moment,” Lamis says.

Malcolm Holzman says his firm leapt into the design competition “because it’s about making a new heart in Nashville. Many cities build libraries, but few will have Nashville’s magnitude of impact, which is greater than the project on its own.”

The finalists are all conservative choices on the part of the review committee. “This committee was not especially risk-taking,” says Schluntz, the committee’s advisor. “I’ve worked with some that select three really different stylistic options. This committee chose the firms in which they felt confident.”

Committee member Rita Hamilton says the committee “didn’t really think about style.” But it must have been hard not to think about style when the architects’ portfolios were full of pictures. The committee rejected architects-with-an-edge from the West and Southwest. They passed over the architects that seemed most likely to push the design envelope. Instead, they picked three finalists who all work easily, if differently, in the classical idiom or a similar conservative context. One local architect characterized the three teams as “real Post Toasties” because of the postmodern slant of the committee’s selection.

Postmodern classicism was a reaction to the bland boxes of the International Style, typified in Nashville by the National Life Building, now known as the Tennessee Tower. Modernist architects allow functions to generate form. That’s why modernism is often a solution to technical problems, abstracted into a juxtaposition of vertical and horizontal planes.

Postmodernism does not ignore advances in building technology, but it seeks to use that technology to create an expressive language that makes a new building comprehensible as part of a tradition. The postmodern style flourished in the 1980s and is represented locally in the classical pediment and Egyptoid piers of the SunTrust tower.

It is understandable that the review committee would favor, if subconsciously, the classical language that has characterized American civic buildings since Thomas Jefferson chose it as the style for the new republic. The library will be built of, by, and for the people, and, as Schluntz says, “Our public buildings are the real artifacts of our civilization.”

In concluding his kick-off remarks, Bredesen explained his vision for a library that is nothing less than a revival of a tradition of civic architecture. “Architecture reflects what the citizens think is important at a particular time,” he said. “We used to put an emphasis on government buildings. Then we did structures for business. Now we are doing places for entertainment. I’d like to turn back the clock a little.”

Or turn it forward. Bredesen’s idea of a library may be the old-fashioned one embodied in such structures as the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. Libraries such as these have the grand entrances and monumental reading rooms that the mayor envisions in Nashville. They speak the classical language of architecture, the language that best communicates stability and permanence, clarity and order. But as we edge closer to the next millennium, we seem to want to know where we’ve come from, so that we can use it as a guide to where we’re going. Old-fashioned may be the latest fashion. What better place than a library to house past and future together?

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