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Suddenly, pyramids are cropping up all over D.C. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened to great fanfare last weekend, a bronze stack of flipped-over pyramid bases. The MGM Casino at National Harbor, set to open this winter, is a massive truncated pyramid topped by a leaf-shaped canopy. Now, on a much smaller scale, we have the new Woodridge Library in Northeast, designed by Bing Thom Architects (BTA) and Wiencek + Associates. The way its gray-brown walls tilt inward gives it a definite pyramid-like quality. When did ancient Egypt become hip again?
The similarity between the new library, which opened Sept. 28, and the work of NMAAHC designer David Adjaye doesn’t end there. A chunky, slatted white sunshade covers the whole roof, an echo of the canopy that overhangs Adjaye’s Francis A. Gregory Library in Hillcrest. This wasn’t intentional, says Brian Ackerman of BTA, the senior project architect. “There were many discussions of getting compared to that or not… but it’s totally different. And it’s not a bad thing; [Francis A. Gregory] is a nice building.”
The two concepts that inspired the Woodridge Library design were a castle and a lantern—a castle, so it has a commanding presence on its hilltop site at Rhode Island Avenue and 18th Street NE, and a lantern, so it can serve as a beacon for the neighborhood, especially at night, when it’s lit from within. These don’t seem like compatible ideas, and in truth, they don’t play together all that well on the exterior. The architects wanted to avoid a defensive, fortress-like appearance, but some of the softening details they added—rounded corners, a checkerboard plaza out front, and the big white sunshade hovering like a UFO—land just this side of kitsch.
Any hesitation melts away once you step inside, though. Most of the back wall is a two-story window looking onto Langdon Park from on high. It’s a bright, lush view. The first floor of the $16 million, 23,000-square-foot building is mostly a children’s area, and I can’t imagine a nicer place to while away a morning with kids. There’s a round book corral with a donut-shaped foam seat in the middle, and off to one side, a small auditorium for readings and performances. The common-sense layout includes a family bathroom on this floor, as well as plenty of movable, bright foam furniture, and book shelves placed unobtrusively to prevent toddlers from escaping out the front door.
Up a broad central stair, the second story has a balcony that juts and snakes over the ground level. A built-in desk runs along the whole thing, letting patrons peer over the stacks below—and bask in light from the big skylight, or oculus, cut into the library’s roof. On the third floor, the rim of the oculus offers a dramatic view down that is worth a visit by itself.
From the lounge around the oculus, you can head out to the green roof and sit on the terrace, level with the tops of the trees in the park below. All the tables and chairs make this top floor feel like a cafe, minus the coffee. It’s sure to become a popular space. But peace and quiet may be in short supply, and not just up here. The basic design of the library—wide-open floors connected vertically by the oculus—seems likely to carry noise. Ackerman says past experience with busy cultural buildings leads him to believe it won’t be a problem. (BTA, which is based in Vancouver, also designed Arena Stage on the Southwest waterfront.) There are private study rooms with sound baffling on the ceiling and a number of closed-door conference and meeting rooms.
The square floor plan doesn’t offer many nooks for solitary, curl-up-in-a-chair reading. Still, a corner in the teen section on the second floor is cozy. It’s lit by a window pushed a few feet into the library from the outer wall, the gap between them set off by a slash of shimmery orange. This detail repeats around the building, alleviating the heaviness of the concrete and drawing your gaze out. “We have these large, purposeful cuts… to help break down the scale of the building on the outside,” Ackerman says.
A broad zigzag of the same orange frames the smaller, first-floor terrace beyond the window wall. The day I visited was hot, and the sun bore down as Ackerman and I stood on the terrace. Both of the library’s terraces and the window wall have a southern exposure. Before construction, this led the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, the agency that oversaw the design, to worry about people baking in the sun.
The terraces may be too hot to use some summer days. But the view onto the park is so good, the architects would have been crazy to squander it. “This is one of the very few library buildings that backs up to a really nice park. We totally wanted to take advantage of that,” Ackerman says. Retractable shades can be pulled down over the window wall to lessen the heat and glare.
Woodridge is the 17th library to be rebuilt or renovated by the District of Columbia Public Library system (DCPL) over the past decade. It is hard to overstate the success of this program, which has drawn on the talent of famous designers like Thom, Adjaye, Philip Freelon (Adjaye’s partner on NMAAHC), and the Dutch firm Mecanoo. Today, D.C. residents enjoy the benefits of first-rate public architecture in neighborhoods all over the city.
“The spaces are cheerful. It’s such a simple concept, but it’s an incredible draw,” says Richard Reyes-Gavilan, DCPL executive director. “We see it everywhere we’ve got a new or renovated library.” The program was spearheaded by Reyes-Gavilan’s predecessor, Ginnie Cooper, who retired in 2013. During her tenure, and thanks in large part to the new facilities, DCPL’s annual circulation rose from 1.2 million to 3.7 million.
Woodridge was the last design job awarded under Cooper’s watch. While not hitting the highs of Francis A. Gregory, it is a fitting part of her legacy. The architects expect the building to get a LEED Gold certification for sustainability. Materials are well chosen, and details are rendered crisply. (Sometimes a little too crisply—the glass-panel barrier around the oculus, with no railing, made me nervous to think of children leaning against it.) But most important, the spaces are just a pleasure to be in. No wonder D.C.’s library system is on its way to becoming the envy of the nation.