On a sunny day at the Glen Oaks branch library in New York, passersby can watch the word search emerge from the upper right corner of the parapet, enlarge to full height at noon, and then steadily disappear into the upper left corner.

On a sunny day at the Glen Oaks branch library in New York, passersby can watch the word “search” emerge from the upper right corner of the parapet, enlarge to full height at noon, and then steadily disappear into the upper left corner.

Credit: Eduard Hueber/Arch Photo Inc.


Before there was Google, public libraries were the primary portal to the wide world of information. New York architecture firm Marble Fairbanks reminds us that they still serve this purpose for many people by incorporating the word “search” above the entrance of the 18,000-square-foot, LEED Gold–certified Glen Oaks branch library in Queens. But rather than using painted letters or signage, the firm lets natural light do the talking.

On dark or cloudy days, the northern façade’s curtainwall is blank and unassuming. But on clear days, sunlight streaming through the back glazing of its parapet projects the word “search” onto the curtainwall glass a few feet away. The luminous effect is dynamic, changing continuously each hour and each season.

Credit: Courtesy Marble Fairbanks


The projected letters begin compressed beyond legibility in the curtainwall’s top right corner at sunrise. Throughout the morning, they drift to the left, extending to a full height of nearly 5 feet at noon, when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. Then the letters slowly compress and disappear into the curtainwall’s top left corner. In the winter, the letters follow a similar path, though their projected height is halved because of the sun’s lower transit. “We wanted to highlight the ephemeral qualities of digital information by relating it to the ephemeral qualities of light,” says firm partner Karen Fairbanks, AIA.

The parapet glass was installed at a 25-degree angle from the vertical axis on the north elevation to catch light from the south. The height of the parapet, from the roof deck to top, is 4 feet 6 inches.

The parapet glass was installed at a 25-degree angle from the vertical axis on the north elevation to catch light from the south. The height of the parapet, from the roof deck to top, is 4 feet 6 inches.

Credit: Courtesy Marble Fairbanks


To test the design concept and determine the parapet’s geometry, Fairbanks and her team built a 1½-inch-to-1-foot scale model using foamcore, acetate, and artificial light. Ultimately, they determined that the back, or inboard, face of the 4-foot 6-inch parapet wall would have a sharp 65-degree slope from the horizontal. The angled glass in the parapet is supported by a custom steel structure and aluminum frame built by the general contractor for the library, Summit Construction Services Group.

During the design process, the team used Autodesk Maya software to simulate the letters’ change in appearance in accordance with the sun’s position. They built one more physical model, this time at half scale and made with foamcore and a sample of the actual glazing, to fine-tune the text resolution through trial and error. Marble Fairbanks designed the custom typeface of the stenciled letters, which are 20 inches tall with a stroke thickness of 3 inches and edges feathered with a halftone pattern.

Looking up from the second floor at the narrow space between the parapet and opposing vertical curtainwall. On the parapet side, stenciled letters glow on opaque acid-etched glass.

Looking up from the second floor at the narrow space between the parapet and opposing vertical curtainwall. On the parapet side, stenciled letters glow on opaque acid-etched glass.

Credit: Courtesy Marble Fairbanks


The firm sent the digital files to Pedricktown, N.J.–based J.E. Berkowitz Architectural Glass, which applied an opaque acid etch on the Type 3 insulated glass unit that contrasts sharply with the transparent glass of the stenciled letters.

When projected, the word “search” appears suspended between the parapet glass and the 6-foot-tall curtainwall façade, rising above the second-story children’s section. “Sometimes you see double letters,” Fairbanks says. “As you move around the façade, what you see changes.” She and her colleagues were pleased to discover other serendipitous effects, including the reflection of letters off the translucent façade glass and back down into the children’s section, where they fall on desks and tables.

Rather than a hard edge, each letter gradually goes from clear to opaque, a resolution detail determined during the architects experiments with a half-scale model.

Rather than a hard edge, each letter gradually goes from clear to opaque, a resolution detail determined during the architects’ experiments with a half-scale model.

Credit: Courtesy Marble Fairbanks

Supplied by Pulp Studio, in Los Angeles, the curtainwall glazing, which is insulated, has a translucent finish to intensify the graphic’s visibility and to help mask the parapet structure and lettered glass beyond.

When the building opened last fall, Fairbanks says that community members were intrigued by the glowing, beckoning “search” and curious about why the letters change shape, position, and legibility. “For children, it’s kind of a science project,” she says. And if they want answers, they merely have to step inside the library and search.

Building model section

Building model section

Credit: Courtesy Marble Fairbanks