Only if you look closely at some of the interior elements of the Bellevue branch — the intimacy of its children’s room, the long, stylish staircase that connects the second and third floors, and its enticing invitations to reflection and people watching — do you see its family resemblance to the Francis A. Gregory branch. Clad in diamond-shaped glass and mirrored panels, the Francis A. Gregory site is formally more simple, a rectangular box with a large, louvered canopy atop. If the Bellevue branch seems to reach out of a hillside into the city, the Francis Gregory branch, at 3660 Alabama Ave. SE, looks as if it has just materialized at the edge of dark forest. Walk around the library, to the grass-covered terrace at the back, and you feel as if you are in one of the city’s finest embassies, facing Rock Creek Park or on the porch of some billionaire’s posh home in Potomac.
If the basic shape is a plain rectangle, the diamond-shaped windows enliven it to the point of pure delight. No two are quite the same. The diamonds are pulled and stretched to give the facade energy, and from the inside, their vertical elongation at the corners makes the building seem to soar. The windows wrap around an interior core, where meeting rooms, office, bathrooms, reading and work spaces are arrayed. But one never feels far from the forest, and a reading space for children, with window nooks that invite kids to curl up and read as if nestled in a treehouse, will make adults pine for the undistracted, lost-in-fantasy, total-immersion reading of youth.
In short, these are spectacular libraries, and they deserve to be on any serious architectural tour of the District. That they are in neighborhoods that are not on the tourist map and that are relatively distressed economically should make them objects of emulation for other cities. This is service and good governance, and a source of hope for a society that too often sees economic inequity as an inevitable.
The choice of Adjaye came, in part, after Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper visited one of Adjaye’s Idea Stores in London. The Idea Stores are also libraries, but rebranded for a new age of media and the Internet.
After seeing Adjaye’s libraries here, and several other almost as good library projects that have emerged as part of a renovation program that has spent $178 million since 2007, it’s a relief that they haven’t been branded in any way. They are updated and modern, and serve their patron’s needs in a way that goes well beyond loaning books, but they are still simply libraries, humble, useful, essential elements of the cultural infrastructure. And they are simply good buildings, and that has become the library’s brand. If you pass by a bit of architecture in the District that seems uncommonly interesting and effective, the chances are it’s a library. Quality needs no gimmicks.