Cityscape: Checking Out the Library | Essay | Chicago Reader

Cityscape: Checking Out the Library 

It's a throwback, as one visitor was heard to comment, but then so is reading.

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Let's start by agreeing on one thing: whatever else may be said about it, the Harold Washington Library Center looks like a library. It may be reactionary, it may be too massive for the street, and so on. But it is an impressive thing to see. Even those who dislike it for what it represents, and there are a lot of them, will probably take a certain guilty pleasure in it. Neoclassicism-- or to be strictly accurate, cryptometaneoclassicism--is a lot like potato chips that way. As for its appropriateness . . . well, what the hell. "It's a throwback," one visitor commented at the open house a couple Sundays ago. "But then reading is a throwback."

I have heard some say it's foolish to talk about the architecture when the library's real problems are a tattered book collection and a sorry lack of staff and money. Maybe so. But most of the better city libraries depend heavily on contributions and volunteers. Both are more likely to be forthcoming if there is a tangible sign that the library is something the city values at least as much as a new baseball stadium.

The Harold Washington Library Center admirably fills the bill in that respect, and not just because it cost $144 million and looks like the Temple of Solomon. When I visited during the recent open house the place was as packed as Water Tower Place on the weekend before Christmas. I don't know that it ranks up there with the opening of Filene's Basement, but this is something people have gotten excited about.

As for what the library will be like to use, as opposed to gawk at--well, it was hard to get much of an impression on opening day. Things were chaotic, what with malfunctioning elevators and escalators, missing equipment, and a computer catalog only a fraction of whose terminals were operational. Once things have had a chance to settle down a bit we expect to know better how to answer this question.

Purely from a design standpoint, I found the library a little disappointing. Having written a good deal on the subject at the time of the design competition, I take a grim satisfaction in noting that many of the things I thought would be problems in fact are problems.

For starters, there's the matter of the glass curtain wall on the library's fourth side, along Plymouth Court. It's clearly intended as a nod to the modernists. But I thought most people would interpret it as corner-cutting, and the comments I've heard so far, including some from architects, suggest I was right. What is needed, perhaps, is a sign:

WE DID NOT CHEAP OUT

WE WANTED IT THIS WAY.

Another disappointment is the entrance lobby. Judging from the drawings I didn't think it would be very impressive, and it's not. If you enter via Congress Street, it's almost drab. You approach the lobby down a long dim corridor painted gray. Only a few doors open off this corridor and there is little visual relief except for some fancy light fixtures high on the wall. Gazing at the ceiling in the faint hope of discovering some feature of interest you see a few splashes of paint and wonder whether this is a last-minute act of revenge by an unpaid contractor. On inspection, however, the splashes turn out to be some sort of art piece consisting of human figures--but so underscaled they look ridiculous.

Emerging into the lobby, you find a large squarish space. Overhead you note a balcony and an ornate ceiling. Looking down you see a fancy terrazzo floor, in the center of which is a circular cutout affording a view of the basement. Peering over the railing one may read quotations from Harold Washington set into the basement floor.

These things are pleasant to look upon. For some reason, however, floor and ceiling are separated by flat gray walls with a minimum of detailing. The lobby thus has an interesting top and an interesting bottom but a catatonia-inducing middle--the middle of course being the place where the eye naturally rests. Perhaps there is some devious subliminal design strategy at work here, but if so it's too deep for me.

Where you are supposed to go once you're in the lobby is not obvious. None of the corridors branching off in various directions seem to lead anywhere of consequence. Nosing around a bit we spy an up escalator, two flights of which bring us to the second floor. Glancing over a railing we see we are on the balcony overlooking the lobby. This orients us but otherwise leaves us adrift, since all that is visible is the children's library--fine, but not the objective of the average patron.

Luckily, a library staffer has been stationed at this point to direct us around a corner to where another escalator has been ingeniously concealed. After ascending a couple more flights and snaking through various passages and checkpoints we arrive on the third floor, where the library properly begins. It is the damnedest scheme for entering a major public building I have ever seen. You feel as if you have snuck into a speakeasy.

Things improve from here on out. The main reading rooms are bright and airy and beautifully finished with light maple woodwork and matching furniture. There are few partitions and the resultant spaciousness is a pleasant change from the library's older quarters, which would have given claustrophobia to a mole.

Around the perimeter of most floors are alcoves with reading desks. Some fear the homeless will camp out in them. But anyone who (like me) has ever perched on a radiator or windowsill trying to read a book in the old library will appreciate having someplace to sit, even if it means occasionally tripping over someone's can of Sterno.

The alcoves display a delightful if slightly nutty touch. They are linked by a series of interior windows that are all in a line. As you look through them you notice that the concentric openings are variously dark and light, every third alcove having been equipped with a substantial acreage of windows to the exterior. It's charming, even if you're not sure whether to attribute it to brilliance or luck.

After strolling around for a while you realize how much has been achieved with how little. The chief decorative elements on each floor are the fancy ceiling fixtures, the maple woodwork and furnishings, marble countertops and wainscoting, and the terrazzo floors. The walls and ceiling, painted the ubiquitous gray, are quite plain.

The overall effect is graceful, I suppose. But I must say, traveling through nine floors of understated elegance can be a bit wearing. By the time you get to the upper reaches you long for a splash of color--maybe some golden arches or a Taco Bell sign. My advice is that we all wear loud clothing and funny hats as a precaution against sensory deprivation.

The winter garden on the top floor is as impressive a space as you could want for the purpose, namely schmoozing the moneyed, and many a tycoon feted there will emerge with a flatter wallet. Whether the general public is going to have much use for it remains to be seen. There is no seating and not much to do, the promised restaurant not yet having materialized. Still, the place looks good, which surely counts for something. The great skylight and the generous scale of the room have a lot to do with this, of course, as do the classical architectural elements. But the key really is the change in color. Having been somewhat enervated by floor after floor of light gray, one turns the corner to come upon a beautiful deep sea green (or at least that's what it looked like to this somewhat color-blind reporter). It's only an accent, used for window frames and such, but satisfyingly dramatic.

One defect in the winter garden (apart from the fact that it's on top of the building, where dimmer visitors won't discover it), is that the view is nothing special. You walk to the window thinking some grand urban panorama will open up before you, but a wide ledge around the building prevents you from seeing the street below. You can see the tops of the surrounding buildings and in the distance, if you're on the east side, the lake. But without the street the scene lacks interest, except to purveyors of rooftop cooling units, and one does not linger long.

But don't mind me. Whatever faults the building may have, it is certainly an improvement over what went before. Any Chicagoan who can read--no doubt a smaller group than we would like--will rejoice that the library's long odyssey is over.

Of two things there can be no doubt: the library was named for the right guy, and built in the right place. I mentioned the quotations from Harold Washington in the lobby; they are genuinely moving. Setting aside his ethnic appropriateness, Harold was the most eloquent mayor we have had in a time when the power of the spoken word has largely been lost. It is fitting that his words are enshrined here.

Much has been made of the fact that the library is at the south end of the central business district. It seems more important to me that it is at the north end of the South Loop, the one residential area in all of downtown Chicago that seems like a neighborhood--a neighborhood, moreover, that is ideally suited to a library. There are two excellent bookstores and a printing museum; in the summer there is a popular book fair, which features appearances by the likes of Kurt Vonnegut. There is also a diversity of shops and restaurants, a hotel, and housing ranging from expensive condos to apartments for the elderly. It is, in short, one of the most urbane communities Chicago has, and the library makes a splendid addition to it.

The location at State and Congress has a metaphorical appropriateness as well. State Street was the heart of the city for many years and remains its great crossroads even today. Congress was to have been the central axis of the city as Burnham envisioned it--a dream city that was never built. Maybe I'm stretching it, but if there's a place in Chicago where hope and cold reality may be said to intersect, this is it.

It seems right that a library be built at such a place. A library is the natural center of a city in a way that cathedrals once were. In it one finds, or would find if someone hadn't stolen it, a record of all that we have achieved in the six thousand years since we learned to write and history began. If we were to go away and visitors from Neptune should seek to discover what sort of ape had lived here, this is where they would come.

So the new library is an optimistic gesture and in a way a pessimistic one as well. It is our memorial. Amid the kids doing book reports and the old men staring into space and people like me on God knows what obscure errand, it says: Here is what we were. Here, along with about a million books on cats, are the things we thought were true and beautiful. Here is what we aspired to, and this is how close we got.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. Nelson.

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