Portland Public Library
August 29, 2011
As a Denver architect, one of the building types I believe adds the most to the urban fabric of cities and towns are civic buildings. Often the most artistic tend to be the local public libraries. This is certainly true of the Monument Square branch of the Portland Public Library.
For years, architect Scott Simons and the library's executive director had been working, along with a group of passionate trustees, to come up with a plan to revitalize the library that would both embrace its Monument Square location, as well as provide patrons with the modern amenities and experience they desired.
What emerged was the recently completed 43,400-s.f. renovation, the first of two phases. To visually connect the existing Brutalist structure – constructed in the late 1970s – to its Monument Square home, the design enclosed what was once an exterior courtyard with two-story curtain wall glass, creating a café and flooding the library's interior with extensive natural light. That single change made a world of difference. Inside, the library is barely recognizable from its former self; re-programmed space and lower-height stacks create a sense of openness not felt previously. Flooring and finishes in natural materials such as wood, stone, and glass invite the outside in.
The architects wanted to open up the library's dark, cave-like interior and turn it into an inviting public space without altering the granite exterior of Portland's only International Style building. They moved the library's entrance—previously in the depths of the building, at the end of a long ramped corridor—to the sidewalk. On the exterior, the architects took advantage of unused outdoor space in the shadow of a double-height overhang: they glassed it in to create an atrium café and new entrance hall. Above the overhang, they extended the glass out from the facade, giving the curtain wall the appearance of weaving in and out of the undisturbed slate. Inside, walls which had enclosed the old entrance corridor were removed. In their place, open stairs were added for access to the floors above and below, revealing the logic of the building. Sheet-glass railings further improve sight lines.
Beyond the aesthetics, the building underwent less visual, but equally as important, infrastructure upgrades including all new plumbing and electrical, new lighting, and new ductwork and boilers. Additionally, a solar chimney integrated in the curtain wall system draws heat from the sun up and into the HVAC system, reducing energy costs.
A new façade and civic presence have transformed the formerly cold, foreboding library building into a vibrant, modern public resource in the center of this small city in northern New England. By extending out beyond the edge of the existing building, the new façade and the (future) urban screen symbolize the bringing of library resources and information into the public realm, a re-engagement of the library within the cultural life of the City.