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Designers Best Site Limits To Create Spacious Library

Exterior rendering of the Glen Oaks Library
Two sides of the Glen Oaks Library will be clad in glass to allow sunlight to penetrate all corners of the building. Marble Fairbanks

One design team’s attention to detail results in a larger, light-filled library in the borough of Queens in New York City.

July 16, 2013—When plans emerged for a new library in the Glen Oaks neighborhood in the borough of Queens in New York City, the goal was to construct an inviting building that would be twice the size of the existing facility. But the site’s zoning requirements limited the height and setbacks of the building, so achieving the desired scale meant that much of the new library had to be located underground. To ensure that the space wouldn’t feel like a hidden bunker, architects and engineers developed a thoughtful design that connects the library to its surroundings while allowing natural daylight to penetrate all corners of the building.

The new Glen Oaks Library replaces an existing two-story brick building that had housed the library at the corner of Union Turnpike and 256th Street. Built in the 1950s, the existing building was outdated and too small to meet the needs of the increasingly diverse community. So the New York City Department of Design + Construction (DDC) issued a request for proposals for a larger, contemporary library as part of its Design and Construction Excellence Program, which encourages high-quality design for public buildings throughout the city. As a result of that process, the DDC awarded the project in 2005 to the team of Marble Fairbanks, an architecture firm based in New York City, and Buro Happold, an international engineering firm with an office in New York City.

A branch of the Queens Library System, the new library incorporates 18,000 sq ft of space extended over two aboveground levels and a single below-ground level beneath the library’s outdoor plaza, allowing its footprint to be larger than the two levels above. The ground floor houses the check-out desk as well as the teen reading room and collection, the top floor accommodates the children’s reading room and collection, and the lower floor holds the adult reading room and collection. Community rooms located throughout the building provide places for people to gather and hold events, and a double-height space between the main and lower levels accommodates a grand stairway while also adding a sense of spaciousness. “There was this desire for openness within the building and a place for people to hang out,” explains Cristobal Correa, P.E., an associate principal in Buro Happold’s New York City office. “It’s less of a library where people come in for a half an hour and leave and more of a place where people actually spend more time.”

To draw people into the library and create an airy appearance, two sides of the building are clad entirely in glass. The front of the building, which faces north toward Union Turnpike, a main thoroughfare, is clad in a clear curtain wall at the top level to provide views in and out of the children’s reading area and fritted glass, featuring a stacked booklike pattern, at the main level. The west side of the building faces 256th Street, a residential road, and is clad to a large extent in a combination of insulated and uninsulated channel glass, but a portion of that side, which is stepped down to be more in scale with the residential surroundings, is clad in the same type of fritted glass as the front. “We really wanted the building to literally be a beacon in the neighborhood,” says Karen Fairbanks, a Marble Fairbanks partner. “So it’s transparency and luminosity through the choice of materials on the public faces were an attempt to invite people into the space.” 

Cross section rendering of the Oaks Library

Zoning restrictions dictated that much of the library had to be
located below grade. Marble Fairbanks

Also to that end, both the north and west sides of the building feature the word “search” — a message that relates to the search for information in the library and elsewhere. On the front of the building, the word appears on the parapet, the back of which is covered with a dark film, the large letters of the word search left clear. As the sun shines from the south, the light will project through the letters. “Depending on where the sun is, that word changes its location on the facade,” Fairbanks says. “It’s an identity that’s very contextual; it relates to the time of year, time of day, and quality of the environment at that specific time.” The word “search” also appears within the fritted glass along the building’s lower front and west sides. In both places, the word is translated into the 29 languages spoken throughout the community. “We used census data to figure out which languages are spoken in this community,” Fairbanks explains. “The word is translated in those 29 languages at the children’s eye level, so that anybody who lives in the neighborhood, whatever language they speak, they’ll see the word “search” in their language.”

While the glass cladding allows a great deal of natural daylight to flow into the library’s upper levels, its a series of skylights at the northernmost edge of the site and western perimeter of the building that allow the light to really penetrate the lower level. Sunlight also washes over the grand stairway, which extends down to the lower level near the building’s western facade, and through the double-height space to the lower level. “We believe that the underground space doesn’t feel like you’re underground at all,” Fairbanks says. “There’s actually quite a bit of light that comes down through the building all day. It’s an exciting place to be in.”

The remainder of the building’s framing comprises concrete at the lower level and steel, including metal deck flooring, at the upper levels. Much of the steel framing is exposed throughout the building, so the design team spent a great deal of time refining the connections to make them both functional and aesthetically appealing. “We spent a lot of time thinking about how we were going to detail the framing,” Correa says. “It required a lot of coordination and time and care just to design everything properly.”

Following approximately three years of construction, the library opened in June, and an official grand opening ceremony is anticipated later this year. Designers spent multiple days at the library after it opened and were thrilled when people began to immediately interact with and take ownership of the space. “It’s great that the city has programs like this to bring better architecture especially to the outer boroughs,” says Erleen Hatfield, a principal of Buro Happold. “There’s always a preconception that everything happens in Manhattan, but Queens is actually the biggest borough, and I think the neighborhood is really going to love its library. It’s a really nice building.”


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