When it chose Michael Graves to design its new central library, the city of Alexandria was doing more than trying to solve a few practical problems and establish a civic presence in its burgeoning west end. It was, in a sense, declaring independence from the architectural constraints of historic Old Town.
The idea, says city library Director Patrick O'Brien, was to create a landmark building--and that happily is what transpired. The new Graves-designed facility at Duke and Pickett streets will be dedicated tomorrow even though, because of construction delays, it will not be ready to receive visitors for another month or so. It is an instant landmark in the sense that, once you see it, you don't forget it.
And also because, in a distinctly Gravesian manner, it is a very good work of architecture. Graves isn't quite at his best here but, even so, he's close enough to ensure that we will continue for many years to get pleasure from passing by and using the building.
Named the Charles E. Beatley Jr. Library after a former mayor who lives nearby, this is a big, spread-out building on the northern edge of Duke Street, not too far from the Beltway and Landmark Mall. As befits its location alongside a wide, heavily traveled road, the new library is image-conscious--there are, in fact, three distinct facades that are visible from the road.
Approaching from the west, you first spy the entry facade from the Duke Street hill--it looks like five brick houses all in a row, each with an identical, steeply pitched roof. Getting closer, you see that the "houses" in fact form a single wall directly behind an open, circular colonnade with a conical roof. There is no mistaking that this is the main facade--it faces the parking lot with the architectural equivalent of a trumpet fanfare.
Coming from the east, heading away from downtown Alexandria, you encounter the "rear" facade--an interesting arrangement of two cubical wings with pyramidal copper roofs and, again, a smaller circular structure, this one enclosed in glass. You tend to whiz by the third facade, the one facing the street--but, in a blur, its upstanding central form somehow manages to say "public building."
With customary skill, Graves here is playing different games at the same time. Because of the roadside location, he clearly felt it was important for the building to have three distinct facades rather than the customary front, side and rear. Because of the size of the building, and its varied spatial requirements, he wanted to break it into well-defined, three-dimensional units.
And because he is Michael Graves, he wanted the building overall to tell a certain kind of story. Graves is a brand name, a trail-blazing postmodernist architect whose designs from towers to teapots have been in the public gaze for nearly two decades. As with most brands, his work is immediately identifiable. And yet visual and emotional surprise--in the form of familiar elements combined in fresh ways--is an integral part of the package.
Architectural history is always present, too. A longtime Princeton University architecture professor, Graves loves history and has made it a central focus of his professional identity. He has a scholar's knowledge of the subject and, in his highly idiosyncratic way, he employs historical forms to tell stories with his buildings.
The story line of the Alexandria library, for instance, goes something like this: The circular, colonnaded form out front is based on a Roman temple of the vestal virgins--a sacred shrine that, according to one historian, "signified the home hearth and the center and source of Roman life and power." The wall of pitched roofs suggests domestic architecture and symbolizes community. The pyramidal forms, which house the main book stacks and many carrels for study, clearly refer to the sacred structures of ancient Egypt. The still-unfinished exterior courtyard, framed and protected by the wings of the building, suggests an ancient Greek agora.
And so on. The intention is to enrich the meaning of a public library and to celebrate its importance in a democratic society. And by and large this works, more in a visceral than a literal way. In the light and airy pyramidal rooms, for instance, you don't have to think about ancient Egypt to realize you are in pleasing, special places.
Graves walks a fine line, though. One of the reasons I wouldn't rank this library among his best works is that the three-dimensional composition is not fully balanced--it is a bit awkward and seems tilted in the direction of the entry facade.
Another reason is that the line of pitched roofs is too close to caricature for comfort. With his highly personal, abstracted versions of historical motifs, Graves is always running this risk. Here, he teeters on the very brink. With the blink of an eye in your passing auto, you can imagine this fine library as just another roadside curiosity--a Dutch Village, perhaps, selling collectibles.
It's just a blink, though. This is a very good building and Alexandrians, as well as the rest of us in the metropolitan area, can be satisfied and proud.
Graves, who helped mightily to change architectural fashion about 20 years ago, is in the somewhat uncomfortable, though hardly unprecedented, position of watching it change again. Modern architecture, reformed perhaps by postmodernist criticism and enlivened by new materials, techniques and talents, is making a dramatic comeback.
But if Graves today seems to be part of a conservative establishment, it is largely an illusion. He's getting plenty of work, but it is because of, rather than in spite of, his idiosyncrasy and originality. His design for that supersize sheathing of the Washington Monument is one example.
The Alexandria library is another. Fundamentally, it is a sound building--the public spaces will work extremely well (though the offices are squeezed in here and there). Like all Graves buildings, it is well detailed. The millwork on the reception desks and wooden stack ends is excellent. Yet at heart this is an extremely individualistic take on architectural history and convention, and it is this strangeness that will keep the architecture fresh in the years to come.
Another good thing about the building is the site planning and landscaping by Rhodeside and Harwell Landscape Architects of Alexandria, in collaboration with Michael Graves & Associates. The building nestles up against a wooded area of Holmes Run Park, and the parking lot, with its plentiful plantings and extra-wide medians, is exemplary.
A bad thing, however, is the poor craftsmanship of some of the exterior stonework--if ever there was a building in which stone slabs should perfectly meet to form a sharp roof peak, it is this one. But most of the slabs don't meet. Some actually look as if they're about to fall on your head.
Ken Brown of the Alexandria firm of Pierce, Goodwin, Alexander and Lindville, whose firm collaborated with Graves on the work, deserves credit for this project. A self-confessed "huge Graves fan," Brown is the person who first told Graves about the opportunity. It was a capital idea.
CAPTION: The main entry to the Alexandria library designed by Michael Graves incorporates the colonnades of Rome and the domestic architecture of the community.
CAPTION: Alexandria's new library, designed by architect Michael Graves, is image-conscious inside and out. The library will open in the next month or so.