The Hunters Point Library Was Too Expensive, and Is Worth It

Hunters Point Community Library. Photo: Steven Holl Architects

The perpetually almost-finished library on the Long Island City waterfront is truly finished now, its opening eagerly awaited by a neighborhood that transformed while the project made its way from the hey-what-if-we stage to the first checkout. Lovely, late, and overpriced, the new Hunters Point Community Library, designed by Steven Holl Architects, has already become an equivocal lesson in what, and how well, the city can build. There’s only so much money with which to meet an infinite number of demands, and it’s easy to sneer at a $40 million library when, to pluck just one item from the list of outrages, residents of public-housing projects are living with lead paint but no heat.

Hold the indignation. A fine library is not just a frill but a declaration of democratic purpose. Yes, you can read to toddlers in a blind brick box just as well as in a purpose-built nook with views of the United Nations. Yes, this project has been in the works so long that some of the children it was conceived for now have kids of their own. But the result is a work of civic pride, the kind that one generation builds for the next.

Like Holl’s recently opened Kennedy Center extension, the library gets sharper and subtler the closer you get. From across the river, it’s a pale-gray box, scored by luminous gashes. From Gantry Plaza State Park, you begin to follow how the windows form like drops of molten metal, flowing along staircases and jumping across floors. Closer still, the monolithic exterior resolves into a silvery concrete skin furrowed and marked by fibers, as if it had just woken from a nap on a bed of straw. In certain light, it’s the glassed shapes that look solid, floating in the walls’ negative space. The library has a fine waterfront presence, tall enough not to vanish, low enough to set off against the bristling towers at its shoulders. It draws the eye, not with bulk or flamboyant form but with a series of gestures, like brushstrokes on raw canvas. Holl begins each of his designs as a watercolor, and sometimes that two-dimensional DNA endures.

Step inside, and the building changes character. A lot of architects design for that first contact, bedazzling the eye with the illusion of movement. Holl’s no slouch in the drama department, but he’s not one to give away the whole show in one ta-dah. The interior unfolds slowly, like a good yarn. A pathway of stairs and ramps works its way up and around the central void, through a luminous landscape clad in blond bamboo. You can see in all directions, and yet, at various points along the way, you pause to realize that you’re not quite sure how you got to where you’re standing or what comes next. Stair-climbing adventures can leave out plenty of people, but here, even if you zip up by elevator, each level and recess has a role of its own, and a different vista both inside and out.

The first few steps take you to a landing where two staircases converge and the great window opens up on the riverfront park and the skyline beyond. Young children will quickly know to turn left. There, they’ll find a set of bleachers ready for story time, watched over by a librarian’s command post. Farther along the indoor cliff path is a children’s room thoughtfully designed for small people: Even the window dips down close enough to the floor for a toddler to sit on the sill.

That view! Photo: Steven Holl Architects

And what a window! If I were to introduce first-time visitors to the concept of Manhattan, I might start here. From this vantage point, only a couple dozen feet above the ground, a space that an oligarch might covet but that’s free and open to the public, you can see the sweep of the East River, where Jet Skis and the occasional seaplane have replaced the barge traffic of a century ago; the industrial relics of Gantry Plaza State Park; the idealistic modernism of the United Nations; and the finest skyline that capitalism has wrought. This section of the library both opens out to the city and gathers kids into its embrace. Loud little voices bounce against a bamboo wall that curls like a breaking wave, tossing the sound back into the fray and keeping it from ricocheting off into quieter areas.

It’s a truism that today’s libraries are more than just repositories of bound volumes. They are places to learn languages, register to vote, apply for jobs and colleges, get online, and take refuge from wintry weather or stormy homes. The Hunters Point library is prepared for those roles, but along with the free Wi-Fi and the outlets and the comfy furniture, it also still has … books. They get pride of place, in fact, rising up from the ground floor, across the atrium from the children’s section, in terraced stacks, like a vineyard of words. The top of each shelf doubles as a study carrel for the level above, so that even laptop addicts are sandwiched between layers of print.

This is a building with options. It offers both restfulness and drama, zones in which to withdraw (including a glassed-in quiet room) and others where you can feel the urban energy buzzing through the glass. Light comes from all directions, pooling in the middle. The westward view is an immense tableau, and Holl offers a choice of perspectives. Libraries sort its users into age groups like a human centrifuge, and in this one, teens get the best real estate, a top-floor corner with a lime-green semicircular couch and low-slung windows that allow them to slouch and slump and still look down on everyone else.

The bamboo surfaces help suppress noise. Photo: Steven Holl Architects

Holl is good at delegating, and much of the credit for executing his concept goes to his associate Olaf Schmidt. But the spirit is unmistakably the boss’s. I recently visited another small building that Holl’s firm designed at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. Part of a U.K.-wide network of refuges for cancer patients and their families, Maggie’s Center is wrapped in frosted glass inscribed with medieval musical notation, a reference to the hospital’s 12th-century origins. Inside, the kinship with Hunters Point becomes obvious: bamboo cladding, a staircase winding around the edge of an open span, an assortment of comforting nooks, an abundance of consoling daylight. But the two engage with their respective cities in different ways. The London building is tucked into an ancient complex; the New York one stands proud of a phalanx of towers. Maggie’s Center is contemplative, peaceful, cheery, and inward looking, a quiet escape from the clamor and churn of Smithfield. The Hunters Point library is contemplative, peaceful, cheery, and exuberant about the metropolis just outside.

As you work your way up and around the inner vault, you’re constantly tempted to look down as well as out. The drama of that indoor ravine caused Queens Public Library officials to go queasy. The cable railings that had already been installed were safe and legal, but there was always a chance of a book or a determined person going over the edge and dropping to the atrium floor. So the architects installed clear glass walls six (and in some cases, seven) feet high, a change that further delayed an already scandalously drawn-out project and added another item to the already inflated bill. (It will also require regular removal of fingerprints.) The solution was elegant and maybe necessary, but the result does read as lawyer-led design.

I’ve already written at length about the appallingly tortuous process that brought this and other public projects into existence, short-changing a whole generation of readers who grew up while they waited, sucking up money, and making high-quality public architecture seem like a frill rather than a civic right. That experience suggests two complementary strategies: The first is to hold a design competition for a flexible library prototype that can be standardized and adapted, earn fast-track approval, and be quickly assembled from prefabricated components. Branch libraries need to come into existence, and quickly, more than they need to be unique.

But we need standout buildings too. In the last couple of years, the Department of Design and Construction, the entity that builds most public projects, is following a second, equally necessary approach: making it easier to realize complex designs. The agency has already begun to reform its procedures and is eagerly waiting for Governor Cuomo to give the city a tool the state already has, an arrangement known as design-build. Under the old system, architects turn in finished designs, contractors submit low bids to win the job, and bureaucrats spend two years trying to bring them into alignment. Now architects and contractors would be allowed to compete for jobs as a team, so that what to build, how to build it, and what it will cost get worked out up front. We should all hope Cuomo signs the bill soon and that DDC’s strategy works, because New York needs more buildings that honor their public mission as well as this library does, and we shouldn’t let paperwork get in the way.

The Hunters Point Library Was Too Expensive, and Is Worth It