Reading Between the Lines 

Don't just judge the new library design by its cover

Don't just judge the new library design by its cover

Local architecture watchers seem decidedly underwhelmed by the design selected for Nashville’s new main library. When Mayor Phil Bredesen presented the winner, Robert A.M. Stern’s classical revival design, he described it as “timeless, inspiring, and unique to Nashville.” The word on the street says Stern’s library design is timeworn, uninspiring, and a drachma a dozen.

“It’s just such literal classicism,” complains one local architect. “I hate the idea of driving visitors down Church Street and having them ask me, ‘When was the library built? 1932?’ ”

Another member of the local design community condemned all three designs that made it to the final round—the ones by Michael Graves and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer as well as Stern’s traditional-looking entry. “Nashville had a chance to do something exciting that would really put us on the map,” the architect said. “But none of the three architects pushed the envelope, even slightly. [The designs] may have come from big-name architectural firms, but after looking at the three pictures in the newspapers, I can’t help but think that Nashville got the B teams in the A firms.”

Worse than charges of terminal tediousness are the inaccurate implications of insider trading. Announcing the competition results in a June 25 front-page article, The Tennessean mistakenly identified Stern as the architect of the Nashville Arena. The lead designers for the arena were actually Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum, the firm that is also designing the East Bank stadium. (The confusion may have arisen because the firm of Hart Freeland and Roberts, the local archit-ects working with Stern on the lib-rary project, also assisted Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum with the arena.) Some Nashvillians, wearily familiar with the good-old-boy network that usually controls downtown, jumped to the conclusion that the fix was in before the library competition even began.

According to the architect who supervised the competition, the design of the downtown library was “fixed” by restrictions imposed on the front end of the competition. “Nashville isn’t getting B-grade architecture,” says Roger Schluntz, an architecture professor at the University of Miami. “It got three A-grade architects working within very firm limitations.”

The budget for the new library is tight, Schluntz says, and the program specifying what had to go inside the building was very detailed. He also notes that the competing architects were required either to retain the existing Church Street Centre parking garage or to provide an equal number of parking spaces. “When inventiveness was tried under these limitations,” Schluntz says, “it backfired.”

Stern and the library administration should be encouraged that the negative reactions to the classical library are based on three façade shots that the public has only seen in bad newspaper reproductions. The public-relations advisors hyping the library competition encouraged the citizenry to treat the process as a beauty pageant. Nashvillians saw three different faces and picked their personal favorites. They did so without any information on, or illustrations of, the skull beneath the skin.

A point-by-point comparison of the competing entries will help explain how ei-ther one of the more adventuresome-looking designs might have “backfired.”

The lobby

The most visually inventive of the three designs, the Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer library featured a glass rotunda flanked on the east by a two-level open plaza and on the west by a rectangular masonry building extending along Seventh Avenue from Church Street to Commerce Street. The glass rotunda included entry, circulation, reference, reading room, and special collections areas, each opening onto a four-story lobby. Such an arrangement could have been noisy.

The Graves plan featured a 6,000-square-foot, three-story main lobby. The uninitiated might like the monumental scale of such grand proportions. Librarians on a tight budget might find it wasteful to devote so much space to so little function.

Stern carefully segregates his entry lobby and grand staircase from reading and research areas, thus containing noise. The smaller dimensions of Stern’s public areas also mean less empty space.

Staffing

Of the three designs, Stern’s library requires the fewest librarians. He centralizes the stacks area and positions the service desks to allow for maximum supervision by a minimum number of staff.

Kids

The Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer plan placed the children’s section in the southernmost end of the masonry wing’s second level. That meant children heading for their special space would have had to travel three-fourths of the length of the masonry wing, past the reference and young-adult sections. The result might have been noise problems for library patrons working in the areas along the children’s path.

In Stern’s more centralized plan, the children’s section occupies the eastern side of the second floor and is immediately adjacent to the stair hall. Stern buffers the kids’ space by means of an open-air courtyard, the elevator shaft, and rest rooms. The patrons’ area closest to kid traffic is, shrewdly enough, the space for the hearing impaired.

Open-air spaces

Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer featured a two-level plaza running from Church Street to Commerce along Sixth Avenue. The intended use for that large space was ambiguous, and the library budget only allowed for the landscaping of 20,000 of the plaza’s 90,000 square feet. The visual focuses of the Hardy Holzman & Pfeiffer plaza were the Cumberland Tower, the Renaissance Nashville Hotel, and the Church Street park.

Graves situated his plaza south of the library, atop the parking garage, with a wall to separate the landscaped terrace from rooftop parking. That design exposed patrons to street noises—and to a striking view of the Renaissance hotel. With sightlines such as the ones offered by Graves and Hardy Holzman & Pfeiffer, it’s no wonder the jury chose Stern’s introverted plan.

Stern configures his open-air space as a two-story courtyard removed from the noise of the street. What’s more, he offers no view of the mediocre architecture that surrounds the library building itself. Internalizing the plaza also promotes a sense of security. Stern points out that if the library ever expands to cover the entire top of the parking garage, the courtyard will be at the very center of the building. “Stern’s courtyard has the potential to be a very tranquil place,” says jury member Marlene Davis, dean of the University of Tennessee’s College of Architecture. “It connects the city to the sky.”

The Reading Room

Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer located the reading room in a glass rotunda, almost demanding that users focus outward on the surrounding city—all of it—not just on one good sightline. Anyone who has ever researched and written a term paper knows that visual activity can disturb concentration. The potential noise problem in the rotunda could have meant even more distraction.

Graves’ reading room, under its dramatic rainbow-shaped roof, was the most striking of the three designs. But because the Graves reading room ran east to west through the center of the fourth and fifth levels, it lacked an effective sightline to the Tennessee Capitol.

Stern utilizes a smaller space for his reading room, but he pushes it to the front of the building on a north-south axis that maximizes the view of the Capitol and minimizes the views of anything else.

Stern as realist

“Stern did the best job of taking advantage of good exterior sightlines and focusing inward when they were not available,” says Metro’s assistant library director, Rita Hamilton. That’s a polite way of saying that Stern played the cards he was dealt.

Stern failed to follow instructions on only one point. The mayor asked for a grand reading room. Instead of one jumbo public space, the architect presents a sequence of public spaces—lobby, grand staircase, Nashville Room, courtyard, and reading room—that are impressive, if not monumental.

Stern’s library plan also reveals a shrewd understanding of human nature. He places the Young Adult section on the same level as the adult collections (you can almost hear him saying, “Grow up!”), yet in a sequestered space to avoid hassles for the elders. Jury member Davis describes Stern’s careful planning as a “programmatic tour de force. He didn’t just give us pretty schematics. He worked out every little detail.”

Also telling is the way each of the designs would be viewed from the State Capitol. Hardy Holzman & Pfeiffer’s glass rotunda looked as if the Jetsons had landed on Church Street. Graves’ barrel vault extended beyond the walls of the buildings flanking Capitol Boulevard, making his library look crammed onto its site. The Graves library needed a park or a plaza to set it off properly; a city street just doesn’t do it. Stern’s central pedimented pavilion rests neatly within the margins imposed by Capitol Boulevard, large enough to hold its own, but not throwing its weight around. This sense of quiet self-confidence is what good classicism does best.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the jury was voting for a classical revival when they picked the Stern design. “Stylistics weren’t the main criteria at all,” says jury member Marlene Davis. “A design with the same massing and sequence of spaces in a modern style still would have won.” Davis says she is usually anti-nostalgia in her architectural tastes, but she concedes that classicism makes sense in the downtown library’s location. “If I had to put a classical building anywhere in Tennessee,” she says, “I’d put it opposite the State Capitol.”

Nevertheless, Stern would be well advised to heed the skeptical response to his heavy-fisted classicism. It is still possible, at this stage of the design process, to tweak the details so that our new library acknowledges our Greek and Roman architectural heritage without forgetting that we are citizens of the late 20th century, about to head into the 21st.

On the other hand, Nashvillians should not expect the new library to be the home run that puts our city in the architectural big leagues. For too many years Nashville has tolerated mediocre buildings in the downtown area that should be its architectural showplace.

We have allowed high rise after high rise to go up—some of them supported by government dollars, most of them bad urban design. Many were crafted from the most mediocre of materials. The city demolished urban architectural fabric to build a park on Church Street and then hired a civil engineer to design it. The result was a space that all three of the potential library architects charitably characterized as uncivic. We allow surface parking to blight Church Street, and then we ask a Michael Graves, a Malcolm Holzman, or a Robert Stern to fix it.

Architects are not miracle workers. Among the three finalists, Stern was the realist. Like a poet rhyming by the rules of the sonnet form, or a film director stuck with a tight budget and an over-involved producer, Stern has tried to make architecture within the boundaries of life as we know it in Nashville. This is the true meaning of creativity.

Models and drawings submitted by the three finalists in the library competition are on display in the auditorium of the Ben West Public Library, 225 Polk Ave. Call the library administrative offices (862-5760) for viewing hours.

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