The new Silver Spring branch of the Montgomery County library opened to much fanfare. The building is big — five stories, three of which are for the library — and sits on one of the busiest corners downtown. Designed by the Lukmire Partnership, an Arlington architecture firm, this library does much more than house books. It has e-readers at the checkout desk and a large, casual area for teens, public meeting rooms and a digital media lab. Appropriately, the architects chose a contemporary material palette of glass, concrete and steel. The result is a building that fits right into its urban setting and allows readers to bask in the daylight that floods in through glass walls.
The Silver Spring Library anchors the southwest corner of Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street. It fills a crucial gap in the street edge along Wayne, and the increase in foot traffic will enliven that up-and-coming corridor. The library’s main entrance, on Fenton Street, represents an effort to draw the energy of downtown Silver Spring south into the Fenton Village neighborhood. A nearby apartment building for older adults will help with that once finished.
Library patrons arrive on foot, by bike and by car; they can pay to park in the seven-story garage across Wayne Avenue. The county’s controversial decision not to build a pedestrian bridge over Wayne was the right one — it’s simply not needed. And several years from now, if today’s political consensus holds, we’ll have one more way to get to the library. A tunnel for the future Purple Line runs straight under the building, undoubtedly its most impressive feature.
On the library’s opening day in June, Montgomery County leaders heaped praise on its architecture. State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) called it the “most beautiful library in the world.” Alas, for all the project’s merits, that’s not true. Architecturally speaking, it’s not even the best library within a 10-mile radius.
Several years ago, the D.C. Public Library system embarked on an extraordinary building program under then-director Ginnie Cooper. Cooper hired world-class architects to design new branch libraries from Anacostia to Tenleytown . These small, stunning landmarks dot the city. They won a lot of design awards and have been a big hit with the public: Library circulation has surged in the District.
Compared with the iconic Watha T. Daniel Neighborhood Library in Shaw or architect David Adjaye’s jewel-like Francis Gregory Neighborhood Library in Southeast, the design of the Silver Spring Library doesn’t soar. The building is awkwardly fronted by a large, separate escalator lobby on Fenton Street. Neighbors and officials pushed for this as a connector to Fenton Village, but it’s an odd and inefficient use of space, and it blunts the effect of the building’s dramatic cantilever over the Purple Line tunnel. The tunnel, for now, is dark and forlorn, with boulders strewn around the hard pavement.
The bottom two floors of the building will eventually house an arts space. (Negotiations between the county and its would-be tenant, the nonprofit Pyramid Atlantic, broke down.) On the Wayne side, they’re clad in concrete at eye level, presenting a blank face to passersby. Navigating inside can be confusing, with the two entrances and an array of doors, stairs and elevators. Interior details look rushed, although the natural light is wonderful.
This was an immensely complicated project — more so than any of the District’s branch libraries, to be sure — and Montgomery officials and the design team deserve credit for trying to accomplish many worthwhile goals. Success will be contingent on the county doing all it can to knit the various pieces into a coherent, lively whole. Officials should prioritize bringing artists into the lower levels and brightening the tunnel through creative lighting and landscape design.
The county spent years and nearly $70 million on planning and construction, so it’s understandable that it wanted to get it right from an urban perspective. But for all the civic heavy lifting performed by the new building, it doesn’t quite have the architecture to match.
Maybe that’s okay for now — after all, we got a pleasant library that’s an urbanist workhorse. But it won’t be okay forever. Suburbs are increasingly competing with cities for residents and businesses. Excellent architecture creates the kind of places where people want to be. As Silver Spring matures into a true city, I hope we’ll see more buildings on par with the very best in our region.