In high school, the awkward kid in a black trench coat and eyeliner of the same hue stands out in a field of argyle Banana Republic sweaters and varsity letter jackets. In a mall parking lot, a red Ferrari draws attention against a palette of beige Toyota Camrys and Ford Who-Gives-A-Shits. A single man at an LPGA event, a billionaire at a garage sale, the list goes on and on.
In order for something to stand out in a crowd, two things must exist. First, a crowd of like items. And second, a significant difference between said crowd and the primary subject. The new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library achieves a similar amount of imbalanced attention for this same reason. Only instead of letter jackets and midsize sedans, its crowd is the University of Chicago Hyde Park campus.
The University of Chicago was founded in 1890 thanks to a monetary donation by John D. Rockefeller and a land donation from Marshall Field. Since then, the university has grown to be an elite educational institution and competes academically with Ivy League universities. Although a few European architects sprinkled in some modern techniques after the 1940’s, the campus remains as an architectural playground of the “collegiate gothic” style. The main quadrangle is an expanse of grass and stone pathways, English Oaks jaggedly stretching to the sky, and staggered, red-roofed lecture halls buckling it in. It feels more like being transported to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry than stomping around in Chicago’s south side. I have never visited a university campus like this one, but it seems to me that this is the image of what a campus of higher learning should resemble. Banks should look like Greek temples and universities should be festooned in gothic, stone-carved facades, just as the University of Chicago is.
Just north of the main quad, through an arched stone gateway, sits the new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library – I will refer to it from here on as “the Library” due to the building’s unfortunately lengthy name. When first encountering the structure, an unprepared set of eyes is bound to inform the brain to respond in a confused, what-the-fuck-is-that sort of way. It seems so out of place and odd that further inspection is essential.
I first visited the Library on a cold, snow-swept weekend morning; a day that landed between terms and when the campus was moving at its slowest clip. I use the word “first” because it took multiple visits to achieve entry into the Library’s interior – the god-awful middle-aged woman at the entrance mentioned something about proper identification, an appointment, and the removal of the clown costume I had on at the time1.
Helmut Jahn, the German-American architect who designed the Library, relied on what I’m going to call “one move” architecture. This is a design philosophy that depends on the success of one over-arching architectural intention. Many modern buildings today are completed with such a turbulent array of design elements that unless brought together with thoughtful and poetic harmony the result can often be confusing and discordant. (See the architectural work of Zaha Hadid for examples of this modern day discordance.) Because of the “one move” philosophy that Jahn imparted on the Library’s design, he achieved a level of crisp clarity while still being contemporary, technological, and gutty.
The Library starts with a series of arched steel tubes, rising 35 feet at its highest point. After dozens of these tubes are assembled and welded together, mullions are attached to the tubes’ intersections, and the web of steel is completed with rubber gaskets and 700 unique pieces of glass. To summarize the building in a few words, it looks like a hard-boiled egg, sliced lengthwise with glass taking the place of its shell. The overall shape is what first brings attention to the building. Then, upon realizing that its name ends in “Library,” the positively insane amount of glass chosen to envelope the building comes into question.
Libraries have typically been made of brick and mortar, carefully protecting the books and volumes stored within its walls and having little exposure to natural light. But this library seemingly disregards this age-long concern. In response, Jahn employed what’s called “fritted glass” in the majority of the dome – think of it as an opaque film ironed onto the glass with millions of tiny holes punched into it. This ceramic frit maintains the dome’s appearance as a consistent field of glass but only allows 55% of the sun into the interior. This cuts down on energy consumption and helps to avoid turning the reading room into a human oven.
The frit protects the interior so well from harmful rays that the Library’s Preservation Department can perform under natural daylight on the ground floor–a task typically reserved for the basement. Instead, the basement of this library contains a sophisticated book retrieval system and stores 3.5 million volumes. Librarians can search for a requested book and one of five mechanical cranes drops as far as 50 feet below ground, locates which of the 24,000 bins the book is housed within, and automatically brings it to the circulation counter at the librarians’ fingertips.
It takes a courageous architect and an even more courageous client to have a building like this completed – which is why the building won a Patron of the Year Award from the Chicago Architecture Foundation this year. It is the Library’s external beauty and distinctive form that beckons the visitor to travel inside and experience the true power of this building.
However, when I initially sat down within the Library’s reading room, I thought that the space would be distracting for students. The pattern of crisscrossed shadow lines from the steel tube structure above made on the room’s desk surfaces and wood floor could make it difficult to focus on the study at hand. Your eyes are constantly tempted to look around the room or through the glass to the surrounding campus. But I came to realize that it is precisely through this visual connection to the rest of the University of Chicago campus that sharpens the mind and reminds its students where they are – an elite academic institution. Once your senses adjust, this room transforms from the weird, half-egg building that stands out from the stone-clad gothic network of adjacent buildings, into a purposeful, concise and functional addition to the university.
Just be sure to make an appointment and wear something tasteful if you hope to see the inside.
1 And people wonder why no one reads anymore.
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