Photo credit: Paul Warchol

The design requirement was simple enough: Create an instantly recognizable landmark.

The astonishing part? That is exactly what the design team at Steven Holl Architects achieved with the opening of Hunters Point Community Library. Scarcely a year old, the $40 million, 22,000-square-foot structure is now hailed as the second-most stunning library on the planet. (Number one? Canada’s Calgary Central Library.)

Olaf Schmidt will tell you that the journey to worldwide acclaim isn’t swift or easy. The lead architect on the project says this “is the longest I’ve been involved in a project, from the first conceptual watercolors Steven [Holl] presented until completion last fall.” Schmidt is a 19-year veteran of the renowned New York–based architecture firm.

Approximately two dozen early design schemes were rendered before the winner emerged from a sculptural study Holl had crafted for a small art exhibit in Italy. “The concept quickly developed into the building you see today,” Schmidt says.

Star Power

And what a concept. The silvery five-story rectilinear mass features large organic cutouts that toy with convention. In an architectural hothouse that can quickly reduce exceptional structures to ordinary, Hunters Point Community Library shines like a captivating star on the Queens side of the East River.

Photo Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Creating breakout design requires uncommon diligence, persistence, and, of course, an open-minded owner. One area that drew little question was the concrete envelope strategy. “Concrete was always in our mind. We did switch from a formed-aluminum cladding to exposed concrete coated in silver. At first, we here hesitant about the exposure, but we were quite pleased when construction was underway,” Schmidt recalls.

Concrete proved to be a crucial—if not the decisive—design decision, for at least five reasons:

  1. The load-bearing shell enabled a support-free sequence of interior spaces that create an architectural energy that catches first-time visitors by surprise. The cantilevered layering is a head-turner, offering sightlines that wow and inspire.
  2. The wall structure was fashioned by 12-foot-by-10-foot formed-in-place concrete panels using common OSB as the form liner, tied together by dense steel rebar. A scaffolding system followed the panel sequence up the 82-foot-tall structure in a series of lifts.
  3. The 12-inch-thick concrete shell was insulated by mineral wool with a foil-backed vapor barrier. The floor frame is composed of steel. To reduce thermal conductivity, a thermal break element was imposed between the two materials.
  4. The exterior silver coating is a mineral product engineered to penetrate the concrete exterior, holding a soft-sheen luster decades longer than conventional paint and reducing maintenance expense.
  5. The stark, striking simplicity of the exterior contrasts nicely with the warmth of the wood-clad interior. A rooftop terrace of ipe wood decking invites patrons to relax topside in warm-weather months.

Amid this architectural splendor is a vibrant, functioning community library, the pride of the Queens library system. “It’s remarkable the city has the ambition and vision to do this kind of project. It speaks well of the city’s pride and sense of place,” Schmidt quietly observes. A pride that is now admired worldwide.

To learn more about using concrete in your next project, visit BuildWithStrength.

Client: DDC and Queens Library
Architect: Steven Holl Architects
Landscape Architect: Michael Van Valkenburgh
Structural Engineer: Robert Silman Associates
MEP Engineer: ICOR Associates
Lighting: L’Observatoire International
LEED Consultant: ADS Engineers
Code Consultant: Irene Joyce Berzak-Schoen
Civil Engineer: Langan Engineering & Environmental Services
Fire Safety: Rolf Jensen & Associates
Cost Consultant: Davis Langdon
Specifications: Construction Specifications
Climate Engineering: Transsolar