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Benning Library brings commerce, community in sync

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010; C01

With the opening of a new Benning Library today, the District of Columbia's library system begins a brisk period of exciting change, with multiple new facilities coming on line throughout the city. The Benning Library is the first of five new or substantially remade library buildings that will open over the course of the next nine months.

A new building in Anacostia opens later this month, a new Shaw branch this summer, a refurbished (after a devastating fire) Georgetown library in October and a new Tenley facility in December. The District is also moving forward with two new libraries designed by star architect David Adjaye, which are scheduled to open in 2011 (replacing the Washington Highlands and Francis Gregory branches, both in Southeast).

It is a remarkable transformation for the District's library system, and the best news, based on the Benning Library design, is that the city's libraries aren't getting out of the books business. Even as digital reading devices and other high-tech toys transform the experience of reading -- and as reading itself declines in a world of video and other electronic blandishments -- the Benning Library puts books front and center. Signs are positive that the city isn't just adding new buildings and gadgetry, but striking a smart balance between old and new, traditional and contemporary library functions.

The front door of the new Benning Library is on Benning Road, right next to the rather tatty-looking sign for East River Park shopping center. But to understand how this $12 million contemporary library intersects with the city, you have to go down a short hill, into the shopping center parking lot, where the back door fronts onto a Safeway and CVS. The back door feels more like the main entrance, which is a smart part of the design.

After a five-year wait, the Benning Library opens with its 22,000 square feet configured to greet the city in two distinct ways. On the top level, the library is a library: large, open, filled with books and pleasantly lit by south-facing windows. But descend the stairs, and the library's lower level is divided into meeting rooms. The stairway functions as an open spine, not only connecting the two spaces but also allowing visitors to see into the building and through it as well, up the stairs and out the front windows. Inner doors on the library level can be closed after hours, while the meeting rooms remain open for a wide range of community activities.

For many of the library's visitors, the doors that open onto the Safeway parking lot will be the main point of access. This design element also makes sense, a practical acknowledgement that the shopping center is the community hub. There's no more welcoming signal a building can give than to have a door open to people who use it.

It has been a long time coming. The old Benning Library was closed at the end of 2004, and for much of the time since then the community has had to make do with an interim facility. Even in the six years it has been closed, the world of reading has become more ephemeral, more bound up with electronics, video screens and digital handheld devices. But the Benning Library puts books out front. Open stacks fill the main library floor, which also features a circular reading nook for children, a row of Apple computers for teenagers and a line of small rooms that can be used for quiet study or one-on-one teaching. In this way, the main space is proudly, unapologetically a space for turning pages.

Libraries demonstrate the rewards and perils of cultural adaptation. Like museums and other cultural institutions, today's libraries often battle a cultural prejudice that is at least a generation out of date. The usual knock: Libraries are elite, pedantic, unresponsive to the real needs and desires of today's citizen. But all too often, the response is to dilute or redefine the institution so thoroughly that the library becomes a generic community center. The library finds a new audience, but it isn't a library anymore.

The division of spaces at Benning is a sensible adaptation: The design responds affirmatively to the community's desire for meeting rooms, while preserving the library in a form recognizable to anyone who grew up in the hushed temples of the last century. You can still browse promiscuously and wander off to a quiet space with whatever captures your fancy.

The availability of computer terminals, however, reminds visitors that libraries are for many people their only access to the Internet, and often that isn't just about entertainment but survival. When Home Depot only takes job applications online, the digital divide isn't theoretical. "This is about bridging the digital divide," says George Williams, library spokesman.

This investment is also about planting good contemporary architecture in neighborhoods that often don't see a lot of it. The Benning Library, designed by Davis Brody Bond Aedas, isn't radical or innovative, but it is the product of thoughtful design, and it looks handsome. Clad in a copper shell and topped with a green roof, the building follows the contours of the site, with the main staircase lit and accentuated by a line of windows that follow its descent. Or perhaps they follow its ascent. People passing in and out of the shopping center will be able to see people climbing the stairs of the library, a powerful visual metaphor for what libraries can do in society.

We know our neighborhoods by the logos and brands on display. Rather than turn its back on the somewhat bleak stores of East River Park, the library becomes the prestige brand. The library is the big sexy on this stretch of Benning Road, and more power to it.

Good buildings, even modest successes, often don't get the credit they deserve. They become the background and humbly perform their function. When Benning closed a little over five years ago, plans to replace it called for something more suburban, with parking in front and no meeting rooms. That would have committed the branch to a car-centric existence with little hope of diverting the pedestrian traffic of the shopping center.

Fortunately, those plans were scrapped, and the result is a better building, an addition likely to be a major player in the daily life of its neighborhood, and a good reminder of why people pay taxes and what they get in exchange.

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