January 28, 2023

The Mid-Manhattan Library, which hovered in a nondescript former department store on Fifth Avenue and 40th Street for four decades, served a growing swarm of residents and commuters, though the branch has become an increasingly dilapidated “embarrassment” for New Yorkers The library system became public, as Anthony W. Marx, its president, put it.

After three years of construction and $ 200 million, the library system was ready to reopen its largest circulating branch in the spring of 2020. Instead, the pandemic extended the closure. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, or SNFL as it is now known (after a $ 55 million gift), finally opened its doors to unlimited surfing in June.

Its theatrically expressive centerpiece is a dramatic atrium that blows up from the second floor, where book lovers can enjoy a glimpse of the vast, circulating collection of up to 400,000 volumes. The branch is expanding its extensive program in the coming months. (New York and Queens library systems will fully reopen on July 6, and Brooklyn will follow days later.)

For this reason, the Stavros Niarchos now delights book-obsessed people, but also offers computer rows on long tables and a dizzying range of technology training, career exploration, life skills and personal enrichment in its 180,000 square meters. Marx called this “a more proactive model of the library” in a recent tour.

The Stavros Niarchos has risen from the ashes of a much larger $ 300 million plan by London architect Norman Foster in 2012 to move the circulating library to the main library, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, diagonally across Fifth Avenue and the buildings in the middle of Manhattan.

Foster would have emptied a dense network of stacks in the flagship and created a large atrium that unites the circulating collections with ornate staircases. Unfortunately, the stacks also held parts of the building, and the cost of putting in the hassle of replacement supports, as well as researchers’ fierce opposition to moving most of the material in the stacks off-site – and the kickback from critics – led to the plan’s failure 2014 imploded.

Marx, who fought tenaciously for the Foster Plan, is now committed to the decision to renovate mid-Manhattan instead of replacing it. The two libraries work together, he said. The main library continues to be dedicated to on-site research, while visitors looking for less rare materials can find them at Stavros Niarchos.

The architect of the transformed Mid-Manhattan is Francine Houben, founding director of Mecanoo, based in Delft, the Netherlands. Houben is known for such sophisticated library concepts as a largely underground facility at Delft University of Technology, in which a wedge-shaped, grass-covered roof protrudes from the ground and forms a sloping lawn that is popular for lounging and sunbathing. For the Mid-Manhattan office, she worked with Elizabeth Leber, the managing partner of the New York architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle.

Houben sometimes plays under her hand. Without bright orange banners hanging on the inconspicuous limestone envelope of the former Arnold Constable & Co. department store, you would never know that the SNFL is a library. (The original architect was the little-known T. Joseph Bartley.) Nobody would expect the Mid-Manhattan to rival the extravagance of the flagship Carrère and Hastings. But is it asking too much for the library to be more expressive in inviting people who are enthusiastic about learning?

The airy, daylight-flooded ground floor is appealing, but focuses too much on the cash register, where those who have selected their books online “grab and go”. Wouldn’t Houben want the guests to linger? The redesign could have done more to discover the scope and richness of the collections and programs above and below street level.

After all, the dramatic atrium, just one floor higher, is amply rewarding a visit. Houben and Leber painstakingly cut openings 25 meters long and 5 meters wide through the third and fourth floors so that visitors could see all three floors of the circulating collection at the same time. These floors are expansive, with sleek white walls, low stacks of books, and an abundance of seating with natural light through the oversized storefronts.

When Houben was clearing the library of decades of rubble, he took advantage of an inconvenience, the building’s forest of columns, by cladding it with different materials to create a hierarchy that helps people find their way around and offers a variety of seating : long, wide, mixed hardwood tables attached to the pillars or work surfaces that run along the perimeter and allow (or just slide open) the city to view through the large windows. There are separate rooms for group work on each floor. Bridges connect these areas across the atrium with five floor-to-ceiling stacks that the architects pressed into the three floors of the atrium. This wall of volumes forms a glowing shrine to the book that is accessible to all.

Abstract colorful shapes dance across the ceiling, an invented 31-digit alphabet by the artist Hayal Pozanti.

For many who find libraries obsolete in a point-and-swipe era, such devotion to paper pages and cloth covers seems anachronistic. When we get out of our zoom caves, don’t books feel … old? Do we even remember what libraries are for?

The New York Public Library has none of this.

Above the collection floors, the generosity and daylight are characterized by an entrepreneurial sobriety on three floors, which are dedicated to programming and help people to close essential knowledge gaps. A smaller version of the atrium is reproduced to connect a business center on the fifth floor with the learning center on the sixth floor. On the fifth floor there are stacks and reading areas for the circulating materials brought from the Science Industry and Business Library, a nearby branch that has been closed.

Like many branches in the neighborhood, the Stavros Niarchos programs will cater to the needs of the community. The classrooms and breakout rooms on the sixth floor offer business basics, career opportunities, and networking opportunities. The importance of such programs has increased rapidly in recent years, the number of visitors has doubled to two million since 2012.

An elegant new suite with glazed rooms for public events was installed on the old roof. It is crowned by a wedge-shaped penthouse painted green, which Houben referred to as a magic hat, an angular shape that gracefully disguises mechanical devices.

There is a café and a public outdoor terrace with a view of the main library and the skyscrapers in Bryant Park. Visitors will discover a lush little “secret” garden tucked away in a far corner.

A visitor may need help locating the huge but sober children’s area one floor below the street. (I’m sure furniture that has yet to be installed will brighten things up.) A youth center includes a recording studio and computers with photo and imaging programs. The rest of the library could use more of the crazy exuberance of the Melinda Beck-designed murals.

The best architects of the branch libraries understand that their designs must explicitly include people in the overall offer. Sandro Marpillero and Linda Pollak attached glass cubes to their branch in East Elmhurst to showcase activities inside. Steven Holl’s stunning Hunters Point Library in Queens draws visitors up beautiful staircases, light-flooded ramps and fascinating corridors to each collection. Recently opened renovations to Brooklyn’s Central Library by Toshiko Mori include a Civic Commons that connects people to a variety of ministries and community events.

Improvements to the Schwarzman building are designed to clarify its relationship with the circulating collections, including a planned entrance and terrace on 40th Street, which is closest to Stavros Niarchos. A research and learning center will be set up in the main building, where children and schoolchildren can learn about research techniques and the value of dealing with archive sources. “People’s lives will lead them to one or the other building as needed,” said Marx.

These improvements could result in a clearer architectural signal of the exceptional resources available at Stavros Niarchos. Librarians across the system know that many people in need of their extensive services do not know they exist. This library really comes to life when passers-by look through the monumental windows and observe people studying, talking, arguing or just sitting with an open book and staring dreamily at the city.