In praise of the social utility of a beautifully designed library
It’s a story my beaming mother told about me frequently. As a 7-year-old in 1970, after touring the distinctive new library on the University of California, San Diego campus, I was thoroughly unimpressed by its architecture, which cleverly melds brutalism and futurism, the powerful concrete piers on its base and the floating crown. “Who cares about the outside of the building? Isn’t it what’s inside that matters?” I asked her.
Skip ahead 20 years. As a Southern Nevada resident, I watched the controversy that erupted when the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District conceived ambitious spaces to do more than house dusty stacks of books. Library leaders abstained from the cookie-cutter approach of many publicly funded facilities — build it fast, cheap, and replicable.
They aspired to complement or reflect their surroundings with plenty of natural light and water-efficient landscaping. They included museums and art galleries, lecture halls and theaters, community rooms and group-study niches. The idea was to establish and sustain welcoming centers not only for research but also for culture, not only for solitary pursuits but also for communal efforts.
Critics blasted longtime director Charles Hunsberger for his aggressive pursuit of this broader mission, among other things. Detractors said that he was duplicating the services of parks and recreation departments, deriding him for wanting to be a “cultural czar.” Public money spent on art and architecture was money not spent on books and building or maintaining libraries in underserved neighborhoods, they argued.
An early example of Hunsberger’s vision was the Las Vegas Library (which opened in June 1990) and Lied Discovery Museum (which opened in September of that year) on Las Vegas Boulevard. Designed by renowned New Mexico architect Antoine Predock, the 104,000-square-foot building features a variety of geometric shapes and Southwest-themed textures.
“The building stands near the Las Vegas Mormon Fort and the path of the old Spanish-Mormon Trail,” wrote Julie Nicoletta in Buildings of Nevada. “Thus he designed a series of articulated spaces meant to indicate the place as crossroads. Rather than build a ‘decorated shed,’ he designed a structure with substantial volumes that, according to Predock, is ‘more about space than surface.’”
What followed was a series of unique buildings that became neighborhood landmarks and serve multiple purposes beyond the collections: a transformative redesign, expansion and theater addition to the Clark County Library on Flamingo Road; the West Charleston Library and the Summerlin Library in 1993, the Rainbow Library and Whitney Library in 1994; the West Las Vegas Theater in 1995; the Enterprise Library in 1996; and the Sahara West Library in 1997.
Architecture transcends, I remind my 7-year-old self. “Architecture begins to matter when it brings delight and sadness and perplexity and awe along with a roof over our heads,” wrote Paul Goldberger in Why Architecture Matters. It can spark the imagination and challenge assumptions. It can be a source of pride for residents who long to see a semblance of the world-class architecture routinely found on the Las Vegas Strip at least occasionally fulfilled in their neighborhoods.
Look at the tent-shaped skylight and copper-colored metallic accents of the Summerlin Library. See the truncated cone, reminiscent of the local mountains, dominating the Rainbow Library. Step up to the terra cotta-colored, neoclassic Clark County Library, with pillars as authoritative as the sternest librarian. Consider the barrel-shaped roof, skylights, and wall marking seasonal, mythical, and celestial events at the Sahara West Library.
A complex land exchange completed in 2016 may allow Predock’s work Downtown to endure and eventually become the home for the Las Vegas Natural History Museum after the library district’s newest addition, the East Las Vegas Library, opens next summer. The 44,000-square-foot East Las Vegas Library, at North 28th Street and East Bonanza Road, will feature workforce training and cultural event space. It will be a boon to a long-underserved area where 90 percent of the households are Hispanic and 71 percent are young families earning less than $25,000 per year.
North Las Vegas is also planning a library to open in 2019. In the shuttered Canyon Electric Building at White Street and Lake Mead Boulevard, the 7,000-square-foot-library will replace the much-smaller library space on City Hall’s first floor. Along with book stacks, reading areas, and a children’s section, it will include workforce development and job training space, a computer lab, a STEM/maker space that will encourage public collaboration with a focus on technology, a career center, and meeting rooms.
The long-awaited facilities come amid recurring debate about the role of public libraries today. Just earlier this summer an opinion piece on Forbes.com suggested that libraries “don’t have the same value they used to” and should be replaced by Amazon bookshops. The response was immediate and so vociferous that Forbes.com took down the post within days.
In this landscape, Hunsberger’s choices look prescient.
On a scorching Sunday afternoon in July, at the Whitney Library, the vibrantly decorated children’s section is hopping with kids; the computer desks are filled with those perhaps polishing résumés and filling out job applications; dozens of students with ear buds flip through pages of textbooks or tap at their laptops; energetic staff members help patrons find an elusive book or answer questions about Wi-Fi to-go and free digital media services.
Security was omnipresent, and some haggard men and women were obviously there only to escape the triple digits and dodge the next monsoon. A public library is an easy target for critics, long ago becoming a euphemism for homeless shelters and more recently a punch line for the internet age. But there is enduring value. Consider a postage stamp: Even now at 50 cents, when you can instantaneously send a document anywhere in the world there’s an internet connection, it’s still a deal to send a piece of paper securely to a mailbox anywhere in this country within days.
Even now, when the internet makes a lot of research clickable, and Amazon sells a lot of books cheap and sends them to your doorstep, libraries endure, as they will 20 years from now, when a new set of technological challenges arise. Access, availability, convenience, one more book, one more computer, two more open hours are important — but so are the versatile space, and the value of architecture, to inspire the ideas and nurture the community as the mission of the public library evolves.