Designer Forum: The role of the modern library guides creative reuse of a former big box retail space - November 2022
By Mandy Woltjer
With a commitment to inclusivity and a persistence to adapt to changing times, the library continues to play a pivotal role in modern society. While it remains a gateway to knowledge and culture, the modern library has advanced beyond its role as book lender, serving its community with an evolving set of resources and offerings that meet a range of social needs. At the library, one can now find job-hunting assistance, laptop lending, free Wi-Fi, community meeting rooms and programs, co-working space, making and gaming spaces, and of course, access to current books, magazines and e-media resources for all age groups. In partnership with GBBN Architects, this ideology has been explored and brought to life in the design of the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library’s (CHPL) Deer Park branch-a next generation library.
WELCOMING MINDS OF ALL KINDS
Nestled in a strip mall within a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio and housed in what was once a T.J. Maxx big box store, the Deer Park library is a successful adaptive reuse story. As CHPL sought to find a new home for its community asset, it also revitalized a dark, dilapidated space, breathing new life into the vacated retail structure.
CHPL’s new brand expression, Learning without Limits, rallies to create an environment for minds of all kinds and envisions a library that “makes noise” and “explores in full color.” The library system’s mission statement further demonstrates this: “We believe books are meant to be unfurled and explored as the wild worlds they are. To be celebrated and shared by the ones who devour them. And we also believe that books aren’t the only way-that learning happens in a million magical forms.”
With the library’s mission to be a playful co-conspirator at the forefront, the design team strategized around balancing openness and flexibility with spatial definition and acoustic and visual control within the 24,000-square-foot shell.
BREAKING THE BIG BOX
Attention was paid to transforming the exterior and differentiating the storefront from the neighboring shops by employing an array of rhythmic, repeating aluminum tubes. This creates a textured façade that is evocative of curling paper pages and offers a creative use of a simple, standardized material. The landscape around the library is enhanced, pedestrian walkways are boldly designated to lead guests from the parking lot toward the entrance, and bicycle parking is provided to welcome guests and create a community beacon within the strip mall context.
Breaking down the retail big box without relying on constructed walls to define space was one of the biggest design challenges. The GBBN team relied heavily on textural materials, decorative lighting, color differentiation and flooring solutions to accentuate architectural forms, delineate space, and shape and soften the interior acoustically. A large, open marketplace positioned off the main entry acts as a beating heart in the middle of the big box, greeting guests with displays, current reads, and places to linger, socialize and lounge, while also functioning as a malleable stage floor ready to host a myriad of events and engagements for the community. A mix of modular plywood seats and display pedestals populate the core of the marketplace, while a fabricated architectural stepped social-seating sculpture provides a playful perch to read, terminating at the far edge of the marketplace.
The open, active core offers easy wayfinding and navigation to the various designated zones that spiral off the center and live in the corners of the library. Floating like islands within the square footprint, a series of irregular-shaped pod structures help to create the edges of the marketplace and form sculptural vertical masses within the open box that work to define the library’s adult, children and teen zones, while simultaneously softening the rigid, boxy edges of the shell. With an interior clad in acoustical wall treatment, each pod hosts a function within it, offering quiet retreats and reading nooks, while another pod near the Children’s Library is tokened the “messy meeting room.”
CREATING A COMFORTABLE ENVIRONMENT
Combating the lack of natural light and outdoor views and access was another design challenge. The team worked to carve open the front of the shell to permeate the space with as much light as possible. A palette of crisp, clean neutrals and earthy wood tones and textures provide biophilic touches and create a clean backdrop for the texture of the stacks. The study pods are wrapped in a ribbed wood-like wallcovering from Wolf Gordon’s Rampart collection, anchoring and unifying the vertical architectural interventions. The original concrete floor was sealed and maintained throughout the open marketplace to help withstand heavy foot traffic and rolling carts moving in and out of the library’s core, which is surrounded by quiet, carpeted corners in each ancillary zone. Interface’s Open Air collection in Linen-a crisp, striated, neutral carpet plank-is used as the field floor throughout the library, allowing the stacks of brightly colored books to pop against the neutral backdrop.
Color is used as a placemaking device, as well as behaving as an environmental extension of CHPL’s quirky brand language. Monochromatic ribbons of color in geometric shapes are strategically carved into the neutral shell, punctuating special guest moments. Interface’s On Line collection in playful shades of Ocean, Aquamarine, Lime and Magenta appears in designated areas and is used as a playful placemaker, shaping each zone within the overall space with bursts of color. A layering of shades and hues within the same color family is employed through wall, floor and furniture treatments, reinforcing spatial designation. An angled shape is painted onto the walls and a corresponding color seemingly bleeds onto the floor, carefully “carving” out carpeted shapes in the field floor that are mimicked on seat cushions. For example, a lime green geometric shape carves out the story corner in the Children’s Library, a blue accented floor corresponds with a shape on the wall in the Living Room off of the entry, and a swirl of magenta carpet puddles around the pod near the Teen Library corner. Each pod theatrically utilizes a different color within the interior, providing the “surprise” in the center as well as a color reveal as guests navigate through the library. Computer hubs in shades of minty green act as anchor points within each library wing.
In the “messy meeting room” and community meeting room, Armstrong’s BioTile LVT was used as a sustainable alternative that would still meet the robust performance criteria of these flexible spaces. Careful attention was paid to balance the quantity of unique flooring materials specified with the library’s desire to maximize economy of product and ease of maintainence and replacement.
In an era when accessible public space is waning, there is one place that remains open and welcome to everyone: the public library. From the transformation and revitalization of an abandoned space to the creative and comprehensive response to the role and brand of the modern library, the design of the CHPL Deer Park library branch is a success story. Since its opening, it has been widely embraced by the community and has set a precedent for adaptive reuse and the revitalization of big box retail, as well as the response to the community’s need for inclusive public resources.
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