“This is an exceptional project that responds and engages in a highly successful manner while being understated and fun.” —Jury statement
It’s a long way from the hutongs of China to the streets of the Windy City, but the design for the newest branch of the Chicago Public Library system brings the two just a little bit closer. Created by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in consultation with AEC firm Wight & Co., the building serves a community that knows a thing or two about East Asia’s intimate courtyard buildings—the residents of Chicago’s Chinatown, who also happen to be among the most avid patrons of the city’s 79-branch library system.
Mirroring the communal hutong arrangement, the interiors of the new 16,000-square-foot outpost are arrayed around a commodious atrium, with almost entirely unenclosed floors that allow direct visual and circulatory connections between the reading rooms and the airy void at the center with its grand-yet-understated staircase. The whole building takes its cues from traditional Chinese design—its triangular lozenge-shaped plan sprang from an attempt to align the building with the street grid in a manner congruent with the geomantic traditions of feng shui.
The effect on the inside is a gently curving perimeter wall, entirely faced in glass, that provides more than ample light for the event spaces, lounges, media rooms and more that make up the building’s highly flexible program. On the top floor, painter C.J. Hungerman has added an artistic grace note, a 60-foot-long mural whose lotus motifs and eye-popping swatches of red and yellow tie together the cultural themes and vibrant color palette of the building as a whole.
Project: Chicago Public Library, Chinatown Branch
Client: Chicago Public Library
Design Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago . Jason Fisher, AIA, Brian Lee, FAIA, James Mark, AIA, Dennis Milam, Assoc. AIA, Michelle Mirrielees, Christopher Quinlan, Inho Rhee, AIA, Adam Semel, AIA, Heechan Shin, Richard Tomlinson, FAIA (project team)
Architect of Record: Wight & Co., Chicago . Rick Chandler, Adam Tomsha, Matt Zolecki
Developer: Public Building Commission of Chicago
Structural Engineer: Drucker Zajdel Structural Engineers
Civil Engineer: Terra Engineering
Environmental Engineer: Pioneer Engineering & Environmental Services
Landscape Architect: Consultants: Site Design Group
Code Consultant: John Lyle & Associates
Acoustic Consultant: Shen Milsom & Wilke
Size: 16,000 square feet
FROM THE AIA:
The Chicago Public Library, Chinatown Branch serves as a civic, educational, and social hub for the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. The most visited branch in the Chicago Public Library system, the library provides a much-needed public gathering place geared toward community activities and technology-based learning. Anchored by a skylit two-story central atrium, the building’s interiors are open concept, flexible, and sustainable, and feature daylighting, panoramic neighborhood views, with bright, comfortable furnishings for visitors of all ages, including a vibrant site-specific 60-foot mural on the history of Chicago’s Chinatown painted by a local artist.
FROM THE 2018 AIA INSTITUTE HONOR AWARDS FOR INTERIOR ARCHITECTURE JURY:
The conscious approach for the building’s ideals for interior decisions are evident in the artistic expression of the history of the cultural identity of the community. This is an exceptional project that responds to, and engages in a highly successful manner while being understated and fun.
FROM THE ARCHITECTS (Dec. 1, 2015):
CHICAGO – Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
, LLP (SOM), in conjunction with the Chicago Public Library (CPL), the Public Building Commission of Chicago (PBC), and Wight & Company, is thrilled to announce the opening of the new Chinatown Branch Library, located on Chicago’s Near South Side. The PBC and CPL jointly selected the Design Build team of SOM and Wight & Co. to design and construct the new 16,000 SF library. The building creates a new civic, educational, and social hub for Chinatown, providing a much-needed public branch library geared toward inclusive community activities and driven by technology-based learning.
Prior to engaging the design team, the PBC hosted a visioning session for a committee of community stakeholders, librarians, and other stakeholders to envision the goals of the Chinatown branch. As the former Chinatown library was one of the most visited of the 80 locations that make up the CPL system, it was of utmost importance that the community contribute to the design visioning process. The results of the visioning session communicated that today’s urban branch library is not a place solely visited for the purpose of accessing encyclopedic knowledge. Instead, it acts as a community anchor where citizens can connect with global resources and ideas.
The branch’s site-specific design solidifies this role. The building sits at the key intersection of South Archer Avenue and South Wentworth Avenue—the nexus of Chicago’s historic southern and emerging northern Chinatown neighborhoods—and is adjacent to the Cermak-Chinatown CTA Red Line train stop. The soft curves of the pebble shaped, three-sided structure respond to ancient Feng Shui principles by matching the avenues’ existing alignment without creating sharp, aggressive corners. This form allows a fluid movement of pedestrians, abundant landscaping throughout the site, and opens up view corridors so that the building can be seen on all sides.
Inside, the two-story library maximizes CPL required program areas while minimizing the total area. Highly efficient, it is designed for both present and future flexibility. The design team worked closely with CPL officials to identify opportunities for programmatic overlap, thereby increasing the long-term utility. Like a traditional Chinese courtyard plan, all spaces connect to the central atrium room, providing clear orientation and spatial cohesion.
Throughout the library, a spatially interconnected sequence allows for a sense of discovery and exploration. There are very few enclosed spaces to ensure maximum flexibility—the open plan can accommodate multiple uses and furniture or fixture arrangements over time. The children’s zone, exhibition space, central circulation hall, and a community meeting area occupy the ground level. Low shelving arcing through the children’s zone creates interactive and fun spaces for toddlers and caretakers. The placement of the community space allows it to be a flexible, multipurpose room at the center of the library, capable of being used for lectures, tutoring, quiet reading, lounge space, and special events. Acoustical curtains can divide the room into smaller areas, and it has a double-door pantry that supports tea service. Because it is walled in glass, the community area is fully visible to the street, allowing library patrons to see out and outside passersby to see inside as day-to-day activities take place.
A double-height hall and grand stair link the ground level to teen YOUmedia and adult reading rooms above. Eye-height bookshelves in these areas create a sense of openness while still allowing for the creation of informal collaborative areas and intimate reading spots. A brightly colored acoustical curtain defines the teen YOUmedia zone. The spaces also include a multi-media storytelling area and are furnished with elementary school and teen homework and gaming tables.An 8-feet-high x 60-feet-long mixed-media mural titled, Universal Transverse Immigration Proclamation, by CJ Hungerman, was painted on the second level wall as part of Chicago’s public art program. The artist engaged the community in workshops to understand the history of Chinatown and generations of personal experiences, and then distilled these memories and observations into the content of the work, capturing Chinatown’s personality via marker and paint.
Sustainability also plays a central role in the building’s design—it is on track to achieve LEED® Gold. Its numerous sustainable features include:
• A solar shading screen that is integrated into the building’s glass curtain wall. This screen reduces heat gain on the high performance double glazing without compromising views out to the neighborhood and reduces glare into the space.
• A high degree of façade light transmission and transparency so that the building is filled with soft daylighting, reducing artificial lighting loads, and is visually open and welcoming.
• A shaped green roof with native grasses that is visible from the CTA station.
• Permeable paving with a high infiltration rate that reduces the rate and quantity of stormwater runoff.
• Low energy LED lighting throughout the facility
• Comprehensive passive features, including the placement of the building core to the west so as to further reduce solar gain and glare.
• Radiant cooling and heating that will improve the building’s energy efficiency, acoustics, and library patron health and comfort. The radiant system also enables the glass curtain wall to achieve maximum transparency without compromising the building’s performance.
The building will serve as a critical piece of architecture within the Chinatown neighborhood. “The Chinatown Branch recognizes the critical role that the library plays in uniting the Chinatown community. It creates a key community anchor and an enduring cultural asset that will serve community members of all ages and accommodate diverse activities,” says Brian Lee FAIA, SOM Design Partner. “We hope the building creates a memorable architectural statement that embodies 21st century Chinatown. We are incredibly proud of its design and its position as a library of the future in Chicago’s urban fabric.”