The District's chief librarian, Ginnie Cooper, says there was no concerted effort to make the four libraries built in the past two years all look the same. No effort to produce a modern version of the old Carnegie-style libraries, which brought classical dignity and patriarchal solidity to the idea of "library" all across America around the turn of the last century. No effort to "brand" them like a chain of restaurants or coffee shops, the all-too-fashionable trend in contemporary architectural thinking.
But with Monday's unveiling of the new Tenley-Friendship Library on Wisconsin Avenue, it's clear that a coherent style has emerged, if not intentionally, then organically, in the four stand-alone, built-from-the-ground-up buildings that have replaced some of the most obsolete and ugly of the District's 24 neighborhood facilities.
The new branches on Benning Road in Northeast Washington and on Good Hope Road in Anacostia (both finished in April), the Watha T. Daniel Library in Shaw (opened in August) and the Tenley-Friendship branch express similar ideas about form and materials. They are clean, sleek, contemporary buildings, with appealing geometry, and are clad with materials that suggest a mix of industrial chic and environmental sensitivity. For different reasons, they stand out in their neighborhoods, so much so that it is as easy today to look at them and instantly think "library" as it was when Andrew Carnegie was building his compact palaces of knowledge in dusty cow towns and aspiring megalopoli alike.
That contrast - the powerful sense that something new has arrived - is one of the best things to happen to the District, architecturally, in decades.
The Tenley-Friendship Library is the most expensive of the new branches, although the renovations of the burned-out Georgetown branch were even costlier. It cost $18 million to design, build and furnish, which is about $3 million more than the average for the newly built branches. It dominates its oddly shaped polygonal patch of land at Wisconsin and Albemarle Street NW, a large, rust-colored form with an appealing and repetitive screen of vertical sunshades along its south and east faces. A small plaza with benches and concrete planters meets the street, offers handicap access and helps integrate the building into the slope of Wisconsin (the highest ground in the District, a whopping 409 feet above sea level, is only a few blocks away).
The library is divided into "front" and "back" of house spaces, with the stacks and most public areas contained in two large, well-lit front rooms clad in glass. A green roof, not accessible to the public but a boon nonetheless, covers the stacks and a central, glass-covered spine connects the front of the library to the rear volume, which holds meeting rooms, offices and a children's story room.
Long-standing efforts to develop the site as a mixed-used facility with commercial space never materialized and delayed design and construction. But the new building has been engineered to accommodate a large new neighbor above it. Giant square columns have been relatively well-concealed in the back of the library and could support several floors of new space if the city continues to go forward with intelligent plans to densify the real estate near its Metro stations. There have been complaints in the neighborhood about these smart-growth plans, but those complaints are the worst sort of NIMBYism. Where else should the District grow if not along its historic commercial corridors and near its vital public transit nodes?