By Brett David Stewart (May 10, 2016)

Many aging libraries are dreary affairs with antiquated technology and low lighting, burrowed into indistinct brown and grey buildings. In Chinatown, however, library patrons are greeted with a postmodern structure of sweeping glass windows, sharply designed metal fins, and elegant simplicity. Inside, the library greets the community with ample meeting spaces, contemporary technology, and a skylight that ignites the central meeting area with warmth.

Last month, the Chinatown Public Library received accolades for being one of the finest of seven libraries in the entirety of North America. The $19 million endeavor opened on the corner of Archer and Wentworth Avenues last summer, drawing praise, ire, and curiosity within the community. Some architects argue that the building is a bastion of contemporary relevance - a library for a new era.

Prior to the city allocating the funding to design and construct the new library, the Chinatown Public Library was operated down the street out of a rented space. The facility lacked the ability to house the necessary technology and services a modern library needs to offer, and thus, the move to the corner of Wentworth has proven fruitful.

In Chicago, there are 80 public libraries open, the vast majority of which have been open for many years. 31 of them do not have access to the city’s “CyberNavigators” program, which is essentially basic computer amenities and training. Chinatown not only offers the program at the new library, but in Cantonese and Japanese as well as English.

Chinatown is changing. The new award-winning building attempts to combine the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Chinatowns into one cohesive community. Crime in Chinatown is at a low, and continues to improve each month. For many residents, the desire to move out from under the stigma of the south side the city is strong.

One of the pursuits of the library’s design is to create a space representative of the neighborhood. “This building executes an architecture demonstrating a fluid, yet clear and consistent ideology,” John McWaters said, an architectural designer at Nashville’s Pfeffer Torode firm.

“It stands in relation to the heritage of the neighborhood… striking an effective balance between cultures to emphasize both social and physical nuances that make the people and place feel their presence.”

Those social and physical nuances are scattered throughout the Chinatown Library’s design, perhaps more than some patrons might realize. Brian Lee, the acclaimed architect behind the building, added a central courtyard-like plan to allude to traditional Chinese architecture and its penchant for interconnecting courtyards.

“The interior courtyard has natural light from the roof port for daylighting,” said Christopher Pettit, an architectural designer at the acclaimed Klai Juba Wald Architects in Las Vegas. Pettit suspects that the judging process for the awards the library has won likely involved whether it “met and exceeded the responsibility of designing green architecture… while having an understanding of the cultural significance of being in the Chinatown area.”

The Chinatown Library is a ‘green’ building, having been certified gold in energy design, a best-in-class practice. The roof of the Chinatown library is partially covered by a large section of grass. It’s not easily viewable, though it can be seen from the red line platform. It is not accessible to the public.

Tim Bertschinger, a senior project designer at the international architecture house, Perkins Eastman, argued that a green roof like this delays the entry of storm water, which in effect, prevents sewage overflows in major cities.

“Green roofs help take heavy rainfall and slowly release large volumes of storm water into the system to help prevent contamination of waterways,” Bertschinger said.

Chinatown’s library is the answer to community members who desire a “good library” for the neighborhood with a better haven for resources. The architecture in particular, though, has a multi-faceted role both practically and culturally. From its clever interpretation of Chinese architecture to its modern usage of green roof technology, the library fulfills the needs of its occupants in subtle and intuitive ways.

Video by Brett David Stewart, photos courtesy of the Smart Chicago Collaborative and Emily Barney.

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Brett Stewart

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