May 20, 2004

Living rooms for urban neighborhoods

  • Two Seattle libraries bring new amenities to underserved communities
    Miller Hayashi Architects

    High Point Library
    Photo courtesy of Miller Hayashi Architects
    The High Point Library in West Seattle was designed to give definition to a neighborhood that has long struggled for a civic identity. The building is slated to open next month.

    The “library of the future” is a multifaceted and constantly evolving theme.

    Yet one persistent vision is that of the library as a convenient walk-in information center located within easy pedestrian range of thousands of residents, surrounded by complementary shops, cafes and services. In short: a vision of the library as the nerve center and living room of an urban neighborhood. This vision is fast becoming reality in Seattle's International District/Chinatown.

    The IDC has long been Seattle's most urban residential neighborhood, with high population densities, active pedestrian-oriented streets and well-loved outdoor spaces for festivals and public events. The IDC is also the physical and historic heart of many of Seattle's Asian-American communities, with a diverse population that continues to change with each decade.

    Until now, IDC residents have traveled to the downtown or Beacon Hill branches to access library services. The new 4,000-square-foot IDC Branch will change that. In doing so it will put into effect an innovative model for library services that has great relevance as Seattle develops more in-city neighborhoods.

    Open, informal interior

    The IDC branch, which opens in 2005, is located on the first floor of the International District Village Square II mixed-use project, sitting below five floors of apartments. Neighbors include the new IDC Community Center and spaces for restaurant and retail tenants.

    The branch creates a distinctive and inviting environment with a specialized range of library collections and services.

    The design fosters flexibility. Individual adjustable-height reference, circulation and self check-out desks allow use by seated and standing patrons. Freestanding shelving remains low for better sightlines and to avoid floor bolting. Internally lighted cast resin “art cubes” divide the shelving into separate language collections; these can be moved as individual collections change in size.

    As in other new branches, books on hold are accessible for self service. Express stations for online catalog access and short-term Internet use stand near the entrance. Additional computers are located in reference and children's areas. An arc of shelving encloses the elevated children's library that is washed with light from the large storefront windows.

    The library interior is open and informal. Area rugs, pendant lighting and sculptural shelving units define seating and reading islands. Interior finishes emphasize natural materials, mixing stained and sandblasted concrete with wood and fabrics. Eighteen-foot-high ceilings finished in a weave of lightly stained wood and strawboard paneling will bounce light from the three large windows.

    Artist Rene Jung of San Francisco is collaborating in the design with installations based on what she describes as “a formal and narrative exploration of the teacup as an object of cultural archaeology and as a metaphor for sustenance and exchange.”

    Cups are being collected from the community under the auspices of the Wing Luke Museum. The artworks created from these cups will be integrated into the design of library interior windows, walls and shelving.

    The International District/Chinatown branch promises to be a comfortable and innovative new library for one of the city's most unique communities, and a working model showing the potential of the branch library to contribute to Seattle's burgeoning urban neighborhoods.

    Civic presence

    Another new branch library illustrates Seattle Public Library's commitment to building facilities in some of the city's historically underserved communities.

    The High Point Branch Library, scheduled to open in June 2004, establishes a strong civic presence and brings into focus an emerging identity for the High Point neighborhood.

    Located just north of the water towers that mark West Seattle's topographical summit, the High Point area has long struggled for a clear neighborhood identity. City planning traditionally split the area along the 35th Avenue Southwest arterial.

    Improved access provided by the West Seattle Bridge and the ridgeline setting, which affords broad views to both the Cascades and the Sound, have recently changed the picture: 35th is becoming a “defining” rather than a “dividing” line.

    The neighborhood commercial center along 35th is being revitalized with commercial renovations. Redevelopment of the Seattle Housing Authority's nearby High Point property is under way.

    The previous 2,000-square-foot branch in the area occupied a cramped residential structure on 33rd Avenue Southwest. Neighborhood residents were active users of the library's collections, computers and children's services.

    Library users included many recent immigrants, with over 90 different language groups represented among them. Beginning in 2000, planning and site selection for the new High Point branch focused on improving services to these residents and improving access within the wider community.

    Relocating several blocks west to 35th was an important goal. The current library site was secured in 2002 when the library purchased the corner lot at 35th and Southwest Raymond Street.

    A neighborhood connector

    In a series of meetings with the community, the new 7,000-square-foot branch was conceived as a “connector” between the neighborhoods to the east and west.

    The library plan grew from this concept, creating inviting entry courts on both sides of the building.

    Extensive glazing in the west facade brings in light and views and makes library services visible to pedestrians, cars and transit along 35th. The east court opens to pedestrian and bicycle traffic from the High Point development that will border the site.

    The massing of the building makes a subtle transition from the scale of the single family neighborhoods stretching to the north and west to the larger scale of the neighborhood commercial zone to the south and the higher density of the redeveloped High Point site to the east.

    The design is evocative of Seattle's crisply detailed, elegantly scaled Northwest Modern buildings located in similar residential settings.

    With its burnished brick and broad sweep of glass, the library stitches together the two sides of a neighborhood, establishing a central community gathering point and a reservoir of civic identity.

    Brad Miller is a principal at Miller Hayashi Architects in Seattle.

    Other Stories:

    Copyright ©2009 Seattle Daily Journal and DJC.COM.
    Comments? Questions? Contact us.