Interview by John Morris Dixon, FAIA
One of the crucial aspects of this library is that it’s, as I understand it, a replacement. There’s been a library in essentially this location since 1911, is that right?
Fortunately the county decided to do something about this. When did you get the commission?
Yoos: It started in 2009, after the economic downturn. They had actually cut the budget by about a third before the project even began.
Vincent James, FAIA: As a result, we actually used half of the existing foundations and the remaining retaining wall as part of our construction.
This site is a particularly busy area in the Uptown retail district of Minneapolis …
James: It’s a very diverse neighborhood. A lot of young people but also older residents, racially mixed. It’s kind of a wonderful melting pot.
Yoos: Also, a lot of younger families are now in that area, and that’s a shift that happened in the last five years. The previous library didn’t attract families. Now the library is filled with families with young children.
What impact did that community have on the development of the building?
James: They were really important to the process of helping us craft a project that was more progressive than we might have expected. In the neighborhood, the urban fabric is very eclectic. Many different materials, techniques, and styles are mashed together in a wonderful way—but it’s pretty loose.
Yoos: A lot of the people from the county assumed that the community did not want a modern building. But in reality, when they started having these discussions, it was really a certain integrity they felt the original historic building had that they were looking to recapture. It had nothing to do with the way the building looked. We wouldn’t have understood that if we didn’t have direct contact with them.
And Beaux-Arts it isn’t. What is the material for the cladding on the upper portion of the façade?
James: It was developed as a stainless steel roof tile, and we applied it to the façade. It’s become very popular because it’s relatively inexpensive, but the trick is you have to detail it carefully. If you use conventional termination techniques—cladding with extra strips and cover plates—it gets really clumsy. So we created a set of very inexpensive custom-molded metal details to make the corners very crisp and keep the abstract quality. We found a good balance between the variability of the material and the continuity and consistency. And in the end, it is really amazing how, because of the different angle in each tile, it picks up light in unusual ways.
In fact, the whole structural system is very direct, but refined for the specific needs of the space. How were the steel trusses customized?
James: Well, we just did a few very simple things. For example, we turned the top and bottom chords of the trusses 90 degrees so that the “I” shape is on its side, forming an “H.” This provided flanges for us to anchor the webbing and gave a crisp detail. When you don’t have a lot of money you have to use every flange you got.
Yoos: We knew we had to use very simple systems and structures. A lot of our thought process was: How do we take this out of the normal? Shifting something slightly—making it look unfamiliar—makes it seem like it’s not off-the-shelf when it’s in there.
Another interesting detail on the ceiling plane is the light monitors. How were they constructed?
Yoos: The glazing in the monitors has a simple yellow laminate in it. When the light bounces into the monitor, the color of the glass window bounces in and down into the reading rooms. It really depends on where the sun is in the sky, and whether it’s hitting directly onto the monitors. But, because they’re all facing different directions, they take up direct sun at different points, as the light changes over the course of the day.
James: And when the sun goes down, they turn blue because the yellow is no longer illuminating it, just the LED fixtures inside that pick up the blue wall surface. It’s a way of adding an animated element to the upper part of the room for your eye to go to.
How did you craft the plan to address the changing needs of libraries, and to serve as a social hub?
James: The clients asked that we locate much of the seating around the perimeters and set up a direct relationship to the street, so that people sitting and reading could participate in the street life and do some people watching. Acoustical surfaces in the space and sound-insulating glazing ensure that even though buses are rolling by constantly, it’s really quite acoustically comfortable. That’s one thing we were really anxious to bring to the library, and the community, after they had suffered their subterranean experiences for so many years: being able to enjoy the connection between the interior library and the life of the street.
Project: Hennepin County Walker Library, Minneapolis
Client: Hennepin County
Architect: VJAA, Minneapolis . Vincent James, FAIA, Jennifer Yoos, FAIA (design principals); Nathan Knutson, AIA (managing principal); Paul Yaggie, AIA (senior project architect); Eric West, AIA, Nate Steuerwald, AIA (project managers); Emma Huckett, Dzenita Hadziomerovic, Tim Ogren, Karen Lu, AIA (project team); Kai Salmela (graphic murals)
Interior Design: Barnhouse Office
General Contractor: Shaw Lundquist
Energy Design Assistance: The Weidt Group
Structural Engineering: BKBM Engineers
M/E/P Engineering/Lighting Design: Engineering Design Initiative
Civil Engineering: Pierce Pini
Landscape Architect: Close Associates (predesign); VJAA . Travis Van Liere
Size: 30,000 square feet
Cost: $7.45 million (construction)
Materials and Sources
Glazing, Flooring, Glass “Skycubes”: W.L. Hall
Window Systems: Wausau
Architectural Metal Panels: Millennium Tiles
Concrete Work: Artstone
Ceilings: Hunter Douglas
Acoustical Deck: Epic
Millwork: Aaron Carlson