Design

mecanoo’s francine houben on libraries, ‘the most important public buildings’


since its founding in 1984, dutch studio mecanoo has developed a reputation for designing vibrant and engaging libraries. ‘I’m known for saying that libraries are the most important public buildings — I still stand by that,’ francine houben, the firm’s creative director and founding partner, tells designboom. across the world, from birmingham to tainan, mecanoo has created bold civic spaces that respond sensitively to their specific brief and geographic location. ‘it’s not only about the design, it’s the program that needs to be tailored to the context and to the communities that it serves,’ houben continues. ‘each library has its own challenges and our task is to prepare them for unpredictable change.’

 

see our recent interview with the architect here, and read on to learn more about mecanoo’s library designs, including a recently opened project in new york, in the words of francine houben.

mecanoo francine houben libraries
image © john bartelstone | video © mecanoo

 

 

in june 2021, the new york public library officially opened the stavros niarchos foundation library (SNFL), a building that underwent a complete renovation by mecanoo in collaboration with new york-based firm beyer blinder belle. built within the 1914 shell and steel frame of the mid-manhattan library which it replaces, the building is topped with a distinctive angular roof and contains a wide rang of public amenities. ‘a central circulating library must empower the community it serves,’ says francine houben. ‘here, the community is all new yorkers. super-charged with energy, diversity and hope, america’s greatest city deserves the best that a central circulating library can be.’

mecanoo francine houben libraries
image © max touhey

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the project was designed to complement the main branch of the new york public library, which is located on the opposite side of fifth avenue, and to integrate the two locations as a midtown campus. new features at SNFL reflect this harmony between the buildings: long tables that recall the impressive scale of those in the main branch’s ‘rose main’ reading room, ceiling artwork in the ‘long room’ that echoes the neo-classical paintings set in the ceilings of the latter, and the use of classic materials including natural stone, terrazzo, and oak.

mecanoo francine houben libraries
image © john bartelstone

 

 

SNFL’s ground floor is arranged around an internal street that runs beneath a floating linear canopy of wood beams, from the fifth avenue entrance to the welcome desks. the heart of the library is the ‘long room’, a new space that truly brings the idea of a library into the old structure, which was originally designed as a department store. ‘we really wanted to use the columns,’ comments houben, referring to the building’s steel frame. a triple-height void has been cut into it, 9 meters (31 ft) wide and rising 26 meters (85 ft) from the second story to a vibrant new abstract ceiling artwork by hayal pozanti.

mecanoo francine houben libraries
image © john bartelstone

 

 

the long room’s atrium wall at the southern end is deep red, and is perforated with new windows to bring in light from a pocket park to the south. ramps gently slope to connect the different floor heights of the book stack levels and reading areas. these reading areas extend from the atrium to the fifth avenue façade, and have bespoke reading tables assembled in situ, many supported by the building’s original steel frame. above, the fifth and sixth floors host a business center and the learning center facilities. ‘SNFL’s vertical arrangement of programs improves the user experience and journey of learning,’ houben says.

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mecanoo francine houben libraries
image © max touhey

 

 

elevators and stairs continue to the seventh floor, which is built at the original building’s roof level. this new floor has pitched wood slat ceilings and contains a flexible 268-occupant conference and event center. externally, an L-shaped roof terrace includes a roof garden and an indoor café. it is manhattan’s only free, publicly-accessible roof terrace and offers sweeping views of the building’s surroundings.

mecanoo's francine houben on libraries, 'the most important public buildings'
image © john bartelstone

 

 

above, a dramatic new roof slopes up to cover mechanical equipment, reaching 56 meters (184 ft) above street level. its angled pitches, and a patinated copper-colored aluminum surface, are inspired by manhattan’s beaux-arts copper-clad mansard roofs — examples of which are visible from the terrace. mecanoo explains that the form is also a nod to the tapering spires of new york’s art deco skyscrapers and the faceted façades of its newer towers.



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