After David Adjaye, a London-based architect with a busy international practice, was hired to design two libraries for the D.C. Public Library system in 2008, he said in an interview that public buildings “should offer places for people to see beautiful things, be inspired, just exist, engage or just do their own thing.” It sounded, perhaps, like the usual, feel-good patter that architects use to describe inchoate plans. But it turns out he meant exactly what he said, and now that both buildings are open, it’s clear that’s exactly what he has provided.
In the past two weeks, the Adjaye-designed branches have begun to serve their neighborhoods. The Bellevue branch in Southwest Washington, which opened June 13, comes bursting out of a hillside, with arms and pods energetically reaching out into what is an underserved and economically depressed neighborhood. The Francis A. Gregory branch in Southeast, which opened June 19, is more serene, a quiet, shining pavilion of mirror and glass set into a dense, unruly bit of urban forest. But both are distinguished by interior spaces that are inviting, that make one want to sit and reflect and read and “just exist.”
The wisdom of having hired Adjaye is abundantly clear. Built on a tight budget (they cost slightly more than $13 million each), with a strict and demanding program, the libraries are nevertheless vibrant, strong and practical buildings. And although one might not immediately guess that they are the work of one architect — a young, international star who is also designing the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture — it’s clear that the same sensibility is at work. They express a similar, well-channeled exuberance, a playfulness that is never merely arbitrary, and a deep sense of respect for what the building should do and for whom it does that work.
The Bellevue branch, at 115 Atlantic St. SW, has consistently been the more controversial of the projects, and it is also the more daring design. When renderings were released to the public, they presented something radically different from the staid and dilapidated 1959 building that was being replaced. The new structure was made of concrete, lined with wooden slats, with large rectangular windows that wrapped around the corners of its geometrical forms. Some neighbors objected, saying it would be out of place on streets filled with small single-family, mostly brick homes. Later, a typical Washington fracas would erupt about the name of the library. It is now officially known as the William O. Lockridge/Bellevue Library, by fiat of the mayor and the D.C. Council, even though Lockridge, a neighborhood activist, opposed the building before he died last year.
All of that deserves to be forgotten. The Bellevue branch is a virtuoso work, proof of what can be accomplished if an architect is attentive to past ideas but not enthralled with them. Adjaye has set the building atop stout pilotis, or piers, that raise the building off the ground in a way that recalls the work of Le Corbusier. This gesture fell out of fashion, and its unthinking use in too many bad buildings of the past century makes it deservedly controversial. Very often, the space created under a building on pilotis is unwelcoming, and the pillars don’t seem like supports but like poor, exhausted Atlas bearing a crushing weight on his shoulders.