A new five-story library in Vancouver, Washington that replaces an inadequate 50-year-old one-story structure serves as a public gathering place and redefines what a library can be for this Pacific Northwest city. In designing the $24.5 million, LEED Gold library, Miller Hull Partnership of Seattle demonstrates the power of architecture and design to shape the civic discourse.
“The client asked us, ‘How do you bring people back again and again, inspiring discovery not just in the first month you open, but for years?’” says Ruth Baleiko, principal with Miller Hull. “Our design sought to create a destination for people who, today, want many different things from their public libraries.”
On a narrow, rectangular parcel gifted to the city of Vancouver, the 83,000-square-foot Vancouver Community Library today defines a cornerstone of what will become a four-block, public and private mixed-use development at the edge of the downtown core. It already defines a more palpable identity for Vancouver, known as a sleepy bedroom community just over the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. Terracotta masonry on its five-story exterior alludes to nearby masonry buildings while its glass atrium faces the impending development’s public plaza.
Just inside the entrance, a colorful 50-foot-high Knowledge Wall greets 1,800 daily patrons with three choices: Explore, Connect, or Browse. Touch a screen to start your visit. This wall and a bold concrete stairwell are the two dramatic wayfinding elements that highlight a 200-foot-long, four-story atrium with Douglas fir–lined ceilings. Notably, the names of the library’s main collections—Children on the third floor, Nonfiction on four, and Fiction on five—are painted in white on the underside of the stairwell’s three cantilevered landings, so patrons become acclimated to the building just by looking up.
As floors ascend, a sense of privacy increases and decibels lower. The first floor includes a café and a reading and gaming area for teens. In the children’s area on the third floor—designed by Burgeon Group—kids learn to read among quirky details including brightly colored fiberglass teepee-like enclosures that create cozy nooks. With its interactive nature, the children’s area feels like a children’s museum. Incidentally, the website livability.com ranked this library number two in its top 10 list of best libraries for children in the United States.
Delights elsewhere include a double-height space among floors four and five that playfully suspends cylindrical light fixtures. A quiet reading room in the fiction area on the fifth floor features rich and durable end-grain walnut flooring and provides access to the outdoor vegetated roof terrace with views of the Columbia River and Mt. Hood.
Flexibility in media and use
Libraries will continue to change, as do the roles of librarians. Shifting from a sorting and organizational role to a more customer service–oriented role, librarians and the media they offer must be presented in a space that accommodates flux. This library has 107 computers for patron use and, of course, visitors can bring their own computers and devices to use while relaxing in the space.
“Considering all the different media types libraries have stored over time, it’s tempting to think that the advent of new communication methods automatically dictates the extinction of older ones. However, this doesn’t recognize the merits of previous methods or devices—or that they could both exist simultaneously and complement each other,” says Craig Curtis, FAIA, partner at Miller Hull and the project’s lead designer.
Visible across floors
Miller Hull’s design for an open library with ease of visibility allows for both customer service and for staff to view large portions of the library for security purposes. For example, rather than a fully enclosed community room, fritted glass pods—custom partitions made of a curved wall that’s nearly a complete circle—allow acoustic and visual transparency and can be easily moved, too.
Miller Hull recognized the library’s continued evolution as a typology and the library visitors’ need for flexibility in many ways, including raised access floors, crucial to moving power and data cords easily. Also, Miller Hull designed 40 custom mobile workstations for both patron and staff use. “With the mobile stations, the library could supervise a much larger building without a drastic increase in staff—at a price competitive with an off-the-shelf workstation,” says Baleiko.
“I love that people say that, even though there’s lots of steel and glass, it feels warm and comfortable. The strategic use of wood really helps with that.” says Karin Ford, manager of the Vancouver Community Library. “This is a significant architectural statement for downtown Vancouver.”
Key Design Highlights
- Strategic placement of wood, such as on the atrium ceiling, visually warms the interiors despite the buildings steel, glass, and concrete palette.
- To help the library blend into the community, the architects specified terracotta cladding—a nod to the area’s masonry buildings.
- Some of the library collection genres emblazon the underside of cantilevered stair landings as a wayfinding tool.
- Tinted fiberglass enclosures in the children’s area, an installation designed by Burgeon Group, provide fun and cozy reading nooks for young visitors.
Vancouver Community Library
Architect Miller Hull Partnership
Client Fort Vancouver Regional Library
Where Vancouver, Washington
What 83,000 total square feet on five floors