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Iconic Design for New Queens Library

Exterior rendering of the Queens Library at Hunters Point will be located along the East River in the neighborhood known as Long Island City
The Queens Library at Hunters Point will be located along the East River in the neighborhood known as Long Island City. It will be situated between a lighted Pepsi-Cola sign and a set of lighted gantries, reminders of the area’s industrial past. © Steven Holl Architects

A new library is expected to be a landmark for the up-and-coming Hunters Point neighborhood in the borough of Queens in New York City.

July 23, 2013—For decades, the area known as Hunters Point—in the neighborhood of Long Island City in the borough of Queens in New York City—was an industrial strip of factories, railroads, and warehouses. But as early as the 1980s the factories started moving out and high-rise office and residential buildings rose in their places. As new construction has accelerated in recent years, the area has been transformed into a premier residential neighborhood, bringing with it increased demand for public services. To meet those needs, ground will soon break on an iconic new library that will serve as a defining marker and gathering place for this up-and-coming community.

The Queens Library at Hunters Point is planned for a former brownfield site along the East River, directly across from Midtown Manhattan. The New York City Department of Design + Construction (DDC), which oversees construction of most of the city’s civic centers, is managing the project on behalf of Queens Library, one of the city’s three library systems. The DDC issued a request for proposals for the library building as part of its Construction and Design Excellence Program, an initiative that encourages high-quality design throughout the city. As a result of that process, it awarded the project in May 2010 to a team led by Steven Holl Architects, a firm headquartered in New York City, and Robert Silman Associates, a structural engineering firm also based in New York City.

The new library will be located between two prominent structures that serve as reminders of the area’s industrial past: a lighted Pepsi-Cola sign that marks the site of the former soft drink bottling plant and a set of restored steel gantries, adorned with lighted Long Island signs, that were once used to load and unload rail car floats and barges. Alongside these distinctive industrial monuments, the library’s vertical design and distinguishing characteristics will make it a standout in its own right. “Queens Library was really looking for something iconic, a kind of landmark building,” says Olaf Schmidt, AIA, a senior associate of Steven Holl Architects. “The idea is that it becomes a focal point of the neighborhood.” 

Exterior view rending of the new Queens Library, which features irregularly shaped windows on the eastern elevation

Irregularly shaped windows on the library’s eastern elevation are
designed to correspond with the stairways within the building. 
© Steven Holl Architects

Initial designs for the library called for seven levels, including a basement to accommodate the mechanical systems. But concerns about flooding following Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 led designers to eliminate the basement and move the mechanical systems to an ancillary building on the site. As a result, the 21,000 sq ft library will occupy six levels, all above grade. “After Sandy, I went out there and interviewed some of the people in the buildings around our site about how high the water came up,” Schmidt explains. “That led us to raise the building six inches and also eliminate the basement.” (The site was regarded.)

On its main level the library will include a reception desk and book return as well as meeting space that is intended to serve not only library functions but also public events. “Libraries in general are less and less just book depositories and more community meeting spaces,” Schmidt says. “They want this ground floor meeting space to function in that way—both for library occasions, readings and things like that, and for other occasions for the neighborhood.” From the ground floor, the library will be divided by a central atrium that is designed to give the compact building a sense of openness. On the south side, the children’s reading area will be on the second and third levels and a “cyber center” and cafe will be located on the top floors. On the north side, the adult reading space will be located within a multitiered area extended over two floors, and the top levels will house the teen reading area.

The library’s walls will be framed in cast-in-place concrete. Inside, the concrete will be exposed and painted white, while the flooring system will be framed in steel and the ceilings will be covered mostly with perforated bamboo. Outside, the walls will be clad in foamed aluminum—thick aluminum panels that have been injected with gas to create a bubbly texture. Lights placed within the landscaping will shine on the building at night to accentuate the facade’s finish. “Foamed aluminum is a material that Steven [Holl] has worked with for a long time but never for an exterior,” Schmidt says. “The idea is to create this beacon that will be glowing at night and will be seen from across the river.”

Interior rendering of the library, featuring concrete walls that will be exposed and painted white, while most of the ceiling will be covered in perforated bamboo

The library’s concrete walls will be exposed and painted white,
while much of the ceiling will be covered in perforated bamboo.
© Steven Holl Architects

In addition to the cladding, one of the building’s most striking features will be its irregularly shaped windows, facing the river on the western facade. These windows are designed to correspond with the stairways within the building and also create a recognizable pattern from across the river. “There was this idea of the circulation being inscribed into the elevation of the building,” Schmidt says. Windows on the building’s eastern facade will loosely follow the interior program areas, while the northern facade will feature a large window that will allow natural light to penetrate the space.

The library will be capped by a vegetated roof that will serve such environmental functions as reducing heat island effects and retaining storm water, while also acting as a fifth facade. “The site is surrounded by these taller buildings, essentially high-rises, that look down on a lot of roofs,” Schmidt explains. “So to have a green roof there compared to just a white roof is a big aesthetic plus.”

Other environmentally friendly features of the building include a geothermal heating and cooling system. “[Geothermal] is something that we’re trying to push for on many projects, but it doesn’t happen often for cost reasons or sometimes a building is just too big relative to the site to make it feasible,” Schmidt says. “But here, we’re kind of at the ideal proportion between the site size and the building size, so it made sense to implement geothermal.” The project is expected to achieve at least silver on the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy &and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system.

Construction is expected to commence in the fall and take year and a half to complete. At that time, designers hope the library will become a cornerstone of the community and a hallmark of the riverfront. “I just think it will be an exciting, great space to be in both for people in the neighborhood and, hopefully, for people from afar who come to the library,” Schmidt says.



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