NORTHAMPTON – In her plan revealed Friday for a dramatically overhauled Smith College library, renowned architect Maya Lin aims to renew the campus’ connection to the landscape and create a warm, 21st century “library for the future.”
Lin’s redesigned Neilson Library embraces flexible, open space, natural light, sustainable design and an interplay between new and old.
Today, the structure is comprised of an original 1909 building flanked by additions erected in 1962 and 1982. Lin’s building, which is expected to be complete in fall 2020, will retain the century-old core while replacing the wings with what she calls pillow – or jewel-boxes – curved, airy structures that while 25 percent smaller than the existing wings, maximize space for social and solo studying and protect and display important books, she said.
Those new wings will help restore the flow of the landscape envisioned by Frederick Law Olmsted in his 1893 campus plan. Lin said that the boxy additions today bisect the campus, creating “an absolute lateral wall that leaves no air.”
“For me architecturally, the space between the buildings is as important as the buildings themselves,” Lin said at the standing-room-only event at Sage Hall.
Construction will begin next summer and is being completed in conjunction with the Shepley Bulfinch design firm and landscape architect Edwina von Gal at a cost of $100 million, paid for from a combination of fundraising and bond financing.Human hand
The first thing Lin wanted after she was selected as architect for the library project was a view from the roof. There, she saw the tops of trees, the quad below and in the distance the Holyoke Range. That connection to the natural was among her guiding principles, she said.
“How do we introduce something that is new, that is us, but can also create a dialogue between old and new,” she said.
She created a hand-drawn, pillow shaped box as a starting point. This became one of the library’s two planned additions, the other of which is a flipped image of the other.
The use of a hand-drawn figure is what Lin calls a “dance” between the organic and mathematical, likening it to free-form jazz. The presence of a human touch in the building might even be noticed by students, she said, creating a sense of warmth.
In each, many windows allow as much natural light in as possible. The south structure will host the college’s special collections, now located throughout campus. The north will be what Lin calls the “active, engaged hub of the library” – one that might be open 24 hours and that is closest to the Campus Center.
In the historic, existing building, students will enter and be able to see in to either of the additions – including the stacks of books. The special collections will be encased in glass, allowing visitors to view them while providing a sense of their “sacredness” and protecting them in a climate-controlled environment, Lin said.
The library will feature of mix of private study carrels and open areas. The building will be designed to ensure that it is quiet, but not too quite, Lin said. “You want it to feel warm,” she said. “You’re after that sense that you’re not too intimidated to walk in here because it’s too quiet.”
The top of the building will feature a rooftop garden so “you’re connected to the views – out to the mountains,” Lin said.
Energy-efficiency measures include smart zoning: placing the cold special collection area in a strategic location, passive underground air-conditioning, window louvers, below-grade structures and using natural light.
The structure and surrounding landscape design will help continue that warmth outside, von Gal said.
“Coming in from Green Street, you don’t actually feel welcomed to Neilson,” she said. That will be alleviated by a design that aims to blend the built environment with the landscape.
The space between the library and Wright Hall is seen now as unwelcoming. But a new amphitheater complete with trees and other design elements will create a “sun trap,” a place that will offer warmth, sunlight and protection from winter weather.
Susan Fliss, the dean of libraries at Smith, lauded Lin’s vision.
“I think the design as she envisions it really brings together the main purposes of the library – as a center of learning for the campus,” she said in an interview.
Fliss said libraries are set apart by their special collections, which is why Lin’s design choice of having Smith’s collections openly displayed while bring protected is particularly fit for a 21st century library.
Another important aspect of Lin’s design is its provision for bringing together learning resources, such as tutoring and writing support, with traditional library features.
Lin’s vision will ensure that the Neilson is a true hub of campus life for years to come, she said.
Chris Lindahl can be reached at email@example.com.