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An Architect For the Books

"The book is central," David Adjaye said. (Steven Heller - Steven Heller)
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Adjaye's public buildings have helped allay those concerns. The Contemporary Art Museum in Denver, a striking box of gray glass, was built on a shoestring budget of $15.9 million but to rigorous environmental standards. The success of that project persuaded Adjaye to open up a U.S. office, and he is now engaged in a community housing project in Harlem and an arts institution in Texas (which he won't identify because it's early in the process).

Adjaye won't reveal what he's planning in the District at this point.

"We want to know who we're working for, and what their concerns are, before we start clicking on our mouses and drawing in our notebooks," says Adjaye. He is excited about the green setting of the Gregory location. The existing libraries -- undistinguished, brick-faced structures that have not evolved to serve their community's needs -- will be torn down.

Laura Gonzales, the Highlands branch manager, points to two oversize basement community rooms that are constantly in demand, and a parking lot with a rear entrance that makes it hard to prevent theft of library materials. The facility smells like mildew, and cables for the library's seven functioning public computers hang from the ceiling.

Adjaye is sensitive to concerns that the new facilities must still be libraries, rather than community centers. "The book is central, part of the DNA of this whole story," he says.

But the grand, classical designs of libraries built a century ago -- "palaces" for the people, he says -- were part of a strategy of public elevation that is no longer relevant. What matters more is access, and options.

"Architecture is almost like a telephone book," he says, filled with possibilities.

Libraries are already morphing into all-purpose structures, and Adjaye's challenge will be to participate in that transformation without making them look like generic community centers.

Good buildings, he says, "tell people that they are not neglected and marginalized but part of the civic realm."

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