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The Library Whisperer

Can architect Francine Houben remake the public library?

The majestic public library that stands at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan is not at its best. For one thing, an edifice that is perhaps the most compelling symbol of this city's free-wheeling, egalitarian intellectual spirit is now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman building, renamed in 2008 for a Wall Street heavyweight, the billionaire chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group, in return for a $100 million donation. While the New York Public Library was, in fact, established with private money and has long depended on the generosity of philanthropic donors, naming the entire building after one of them seems awkward and not a little short-sighted. What can they do when the next big-ticket donor comes along: offer to rename the lions?

More distressing is the fact that the 1911 Carrere and Hastings landmark building's crown jewel, officially called the Deborah, Jonathan F.P., Samuel Priest, and Adam Raphael Rose Main Rose Reading Room (for the children of trustee Sandra Priest Rose and Frederick Phineas Rose who donated $15 million for its 1998 restoration) is closed. The main reading room (as it's more commonly known), a glorious football-field-length expanse of sturdy oak tables and bronze reading lamps under a 52-foot-high ceiling painted with a luminous Maxfield Parrish-style sky, has been out of commission since May of last year, when one of the 864 ornamental rosettes—a foot-wide hunk of masonry—came crashing down. Fortunately this happened in the dead of the night, so no one was hurt. But the room had to be shut, scaffolding erected, and each of the rosettes inspected for structural integrity, and all of them more securely fastened to the ceiling. "In doing that, lo and behold, we found asbestos there," says the New York Public Library's chief operating officer, Iris Weinshall. The Rose Reading Room is off limits until at least next fall, relegating most patrons to a maze of little rooms on the second floor that are cramped, crowded, and distinctly lacking in grandeur.

The NYPL's Mid Manhattan Branch. Image copyright Mecanoo.

Kitty-corner across Fifth Avenue and 40th Street sits the NYPL's Mid Manhattan Branch, a five-story circulating library housed in the former Arnold Constable department store (circa 1914), that was renovated in the early 1970s with all the ugliness that date suggests. What you find there is a more relaxed scene. The Mid Manhattan has none of the Beaux Arts splendor of the building with the lions—its décor is all fluorescent lights, wood-grain laminate tables, and industrial strength brown carpeting, comingled with an intermittent sour smell—but it's a refreshingly easy place to track down a book. It's oddly peaceful. There are no tourists looking for the spot where Carrie Bradshaw almost got married. And, if you want to read a novel, it's hard to think of a better place to find one. On a recent visit I realized that I've spent so much time on Amazon that I've almost forgotten the serendipitous pleasure of perusing shelves full of books. For the first time in my life as a New Yorker, I find myself liking the Mid Manhattan library more than its stately neighbor.

Perhaps I was influenced by a recent conversation with Dutch architect Francine Houben, the director of Delft-based Mecanoo, the firm that was hired in September to rethink and remake both libraries. Houben insists, firmly and cheerfully, that the Mid Manhattan building has "potential." And, now that she mentions it, it clearly does. Houben has a growing reputation as the Library Whisperer, someone whose humanistic approach to architecture has helped reinvent an institution that some thought would die along with the printed book. Predictions about the demise of the library—and the book—were premature. Houben's most quoted line on libraries is that they are the "cathedrals of the 21st century." I ask her what she means by that and she says, "I think that they're the most important public building nowadays, for everybody." In fact, she has arrived in New York from the Netherlands just in time to be a pivotal figure in a culture war, an unwinnable argument about what these crucial institutions are, who they're for, and how they should best deploy their resources.

Part of Norman Foster's design for the New York Public Library, revealed in late 2012.

For a period of approximately six years, the New York Public Library promoted what it called the Central Library Plan, a scheme to fold the Mid Manhattan Branch and the Science and Business Library (SIBL) on 34th Street into the main building through an architectural sleight of hand. The epic project, announced in 2008, involved a circulating library—a glassy thing designed by Foster & Partners—in the landmark building which has, since the 1960s, been entirely a non-circulating research facility. Architect Norman Foster, of course, is famous for topping landmark masonry buildings like the Reichstag or the British Museum with glittering futuristic additions. The shiny object Foster proposed was intended to lure a variety of new patrons, including children and teenagers, to what had long been a Mecca for scholars. It was to be constructed in the vast space below the Rose Reading Room, replacing the seven levels of stacks holding 2.5 million books. The bulk of the library's holdings would be shifted offsite to New Jersey but would, in theory, be available with 24 hours notice.

The plan attracted positive notice from then-New York Times critic Nicolai Ourossoff, who rarely met a high-gloss, big name project he didn't like. "News that the library has hired Norman Foster and his London firm, Foster & Partners, for the job is one of a string of shrewd decisions by the library that should put our minds at ease." Pretty much everyone else was furious. Scholars and writers banded together to fight the plan, which involved selling the Mid-Manhattan building across the street, a plum development site, and SIBL's space within the old B. Altman department store on 34th Street for roughly $100 million apiece. Among the library's critics, there was a strong sense that the library's destiny was now being shaped by the values of the real estate moguls on its board and management consultants from firms like McKinsey and Booz Allen Hamilton who'd been hired to map the institution's future. The scuttlebutt was that the library was turning its back on scholarship in favor of, as the current New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman framed it, "Starbucks-slurping teenagers."

From Norman Foster's plan for the New York Public Library.

The wheels began to fall off of the Central Library Plan in early December of 2012, when Ada Louise Huxtable's scathing evaluation was published in the Wall Street Journal. Huxtable perfectly expressed the outrage that was growing among the writers and scholars who treasured the library. The flashpoint was the very idea that the books—our books!—were to live in New Jersey. She also drove home the structural conundrum: the glorious Rose Reading Room is supported literally, physically, by the central stacks. To pull them out, an engineer later told another Wall Street Journal writer, was like "cutting the legs off the table while dinner is being served." (That Foster's plan was to repurpose some of the stacks as shelving in the new facility didn't appease anyone.)

"The library's own releases," Huxtable argued, " while short on details, consistently offer a rosy picture of a lively and popular 'People's Palace.' But a research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts, the current arbiter of success. This is already the most democratic of institutions, free and open to all. Democracy and populism seem to have become hopelessly confused."

She concluded: "But there are better options than turning the library into a hollowed-out hybrid of new and old….Sell the surplus Fifth Avenue property at 34th Street. Keep the Mid-Manhattan building; the location is perfect. Let Foster+Partners loose on the Mid-Manhattan building; the results will be spectacular, and probably no more costly than the extravagant and destructive plan the library has chosen." Huxtable, 91, died less than a month later. The piece was her last published work.

Less than two years later, NYPL CEO Tony Marx announced a new course of action remarkably similar to what Huxtable had proposed. In May of 2014, the NYPL pulled the plug on the Foster scheme and in June of that year announced a new plan, one that calls for selling SIBL but hanging on to the Mid-Manhattan branch and renovating it, and opening up some 70,000 square feet of space in the landmark building (staffers now call it SASB, pronounced saz-bee) to the public. This change of direction is referred to internally as "the pivot," which sounded to me like "die Wende" or "the turn," a term used by former East Germans to describe the fall of their socialist government.

The pivot, according to library spokesman Ken Weine, happened for three reasons. First, money: "The budget was supposed to be $300 million [for the Central Library Plan] and it was…admittedly above the budget." The most recent estimates assigned a $500 million price tag to the plan. The second issue is more conceptual: "We're in the middle of a revolution in how information is being used and accordingly any library has to be exceedingly flexible," Weine explained. "The farther along they got down the road, they realized that working within the space that is now the central stacks does not provide sufficient flexibility." The third reason is basically that Tony Marx, who became library president in 2011, inherited the Central Library Plan from his predecessor, Paul LeCerc. According to Weine, "the hallmark of Tony Marx's tenure is a dramatic expansion in education programming." Much of this takes place in the branch libraries, but Marx would like to add more to the Schwarzman building, and there really wasn't the money for both constructing a building-within-a-building and pursuing education priorities. "At the end of the day the library took a hard look at the numbers and there was no other option."

None of this is especially surprising. The scheme seemed destined to sink under its own weight (driving books back and forth up the New Jersey Turnpike?) and the burden of relentless bad press. It wasn't just Huxtable but Kimmelman in the New York Times, a 14,000-word cri de coeur from Charles Petersen in the literary journal N+1, an investigative piece in the Nation by Scott Sherman that grew into a book, Patience and Fortitude, and a group of hyper literate and indefatigable critics, including Junot Diaz, Annalyn Swan and E.L. Doctorow, known as The Committee to Save the New York Public Library. And, perhaps most crucially, the end of the Bloomberg administration (which pledged $150 million in city funds to the Foster plan) and the beginning of De Blasio's; Candidate DeBlasio famously joined one of the Save the NYPL protests on the library's steps. (The Bloomberg $150 million wasn't re-authorized by the DeBlasio administration until after the pivot.)

The real surprise was that, a year after the pivot, when a new architecture firm was named, it wasn't a heavy hitter like the current it-boy Bjarke Ingels or a safe choice like perennial hometown favorites Skidmore Owings and Merrill—although both were on the short list. Instead the commission went to the Dutch firm Mecanoo, led by a woman named Francine Houben. Based in Delft, with about 160 employees, Mecanoo has been around since 1984. But they are not a firm familiar to anyone who isn't highly attuned to the architectural profession. They do not have the swagger of Rem Koolhaas's OMA, nor are they as clickbait–driven as that other Dutch firm MVRDV (lately famous for a mirrored Rotterdam "art depot" shaped like a melon half). Mecanoo, named for an early British precursor to the Erector Set, has quietly been building a reputation for work that is smart, unpredictable, and sometimes spectacular. Most recently, the firm completed a new train station a few blocks from its office in Delft. The ridged ceiling of the largely transparent station is covered with an undulating pattern that reveals itself to be an antique map of the city.

Mecanoo's Birmingham library. Photo courtesy Mecanoo.

The firm, while quite successful in Europe, was largely unknown in the US until the completion this year of the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, in the Roxbury section of Boston, a new headquarters for the city's public schools. Working with Sasaki, the firm wove the facades of three existing 19th century buildings into a new structure shaped to emphasize its triangular site and clad in rippling brown brick. This unforced marriage of old and new, combined with a generous attitude toward the public sector, is typical of the firm's work. They are genius practitioners of an approach that almost defines The Netherlands: the past, present, and future comingle in ways that are at once exhilarating and reassuring. The past isn't bulldozed. It's folded into the future.

Mecanoo has designed libraries in Taiwan and Norway, and in various cities in the Netherlands. In 2013, the firm completed an extraordinary central library in Birmingham, England. Decorated on the outside with a layered mesh of metal rings, it's a gorgeous asymmetrical stack of boxes standing on Centenary Square in the heart of the city. The interior of the library, as you travel upward in escalators through its core, is a series of grand circular spaces lined with books. Along the perimeter of each floor are long ledges and chairs where people can sit and read, facing outward toward the city. "It's all kinds of different people sitting in a harmonious way together," notes Houben. A video on Mecanoo's website presents a series of man-on-the-street interviews in and around the library. A young woman gushes that she tells her friends, "It's such a good library. You need to go." Children say it looks like flowers or a birthday cake. One little boy says: "It reminds me of the building with all the crosses on it, but with circles instead."

Iris Weinshall was hired last year as the NYPL's COO based in part on her real estate experience working for the City University of New York. "In seven years at CUNY I added two million square feet to the footprint," she says. Her projects there include the rather spectacular Advanced Science Center by Kohn Pedersen Fox and the new Hunter School of Social Work in East Harlem, designed by Cooper Robertson. Weinshall is also politically well connected. She was appointed New York City's transportation commissioner in 2000, serving primarily under Bloomberg until 2007, and she's married to New York's senior senator, Chuck Schumer. (If you know her name, it may be because she was a leader in the opposition a few years ago against a bike lane along Brooklyn's tony Prospect Park West.)

In an interview at her office in the main library, Weinshall explained, "What was clear to me was that if you were seeking an architect to do both the Mid Manhattan library and 70,000 square feet of space that we were opening up in this building, that was underutilized and we were now opening it up to the public, you didn't want it to be a fashion show." The process began with the library sending a Request for Qualifications to 24 firms. The message, according to Weinshall, was "Tell us your experience. Don't give us models. We don't want to see pretty pictures. We want your ideology and your thoughts."

The library sent the 24 firms a design brief for the two buildings developed in conjunction with a strategic planning agency called BrightSpot ("We guide organizations to their future") who worked with the library staff and conducted public meetings to develop a laundry list of uses that would be included in each of the buildings.

According to chief library officer Mary Lee Kennedy, the brief was a summary of a year's worth of work. "We visited over 70 locations throughout New York City to learn best practices. We went to bookstores and other cultural institutions. We went to museums. We looked at how people engaged in customer service. We looked at where people sat down to reflect and read."

Inside the NYPL's Stephen A. Schwarzman building. Photo by Jonathan Blanc / NYPL.

Weinshall says the plan addressed questions like: "Did we want a children's library? Did we want an education corridor? What do we want to do about adult education? What do we want to do about science and business?" The RFQ netted 21 responses that were examined by a committee comprised of library staff members, including Weinshall and Kennedy, and winnowed down to eight firms: BIG​, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, RAMSA, Ennead, SOM, Grimshaw, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and Mecanoo.

The firms on the short list were told, according to Weinshall, "We want you to really think about and give us ideas, how you would envision the allocation of the space and give it some of your architectural themes and ideas. This is not a beauty contest. Don't come in with any beautiful renderings. We don't want to see that. We want to have a conversation with you."

Weinshall and other committee members traveled widely to examine projects like the Baker Library, a 1927 McKim Mead and White building renovated by Robert A.M. Stern, the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and Mecanoo's Technical University (and its library) in Delft.

Mecanoo's Technical University in Delft. Image courtesy Mecanoo.

From the outside, it seems clear that if the NYPL really wanted to atone for the outrage it had engendered with the Foster plan, if it really wanted to demonstrate that it was not an out–of-control institution that had sold its soul to the real estate industry, it would have picked Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, whose beloved Folk Art Museum had been so recently and regrettably bulldozed by exactly the sort of scheme from which the NYPL had pivoted. The symbolism of that move would have undone years of bad press. TWBTA was certainly in the running right to the end.

However, the committee voted unanimously, according to Weinshall, for Mecanoo. Why? Possibly because, when each of the firms under consideration partnered with a local architect-of-record, the Dutch firm chose Beyer Blinder Belle. The New York firm is known for its sensitive historic renovations, including one of that other midtown landmark, Grand Central Terminal. But the selection was based on visits to Mecanoo's work ("We were very struck with the materials she uses," said Weinshall) and the idea that Houben is uniquely sensitive to libraries.

The past, present, and future comingle in ways that are at once exhilarating and reassuring. The past isn’t bulldozed. It’s folded into the future.

When I asked Kennedy why Mecanoo was chosen, she replied, "I like their philosophy of the library: a library for the people. I think Francine is very focused on building a library for the community. " Weinshall phrased it this way: "I think that what was particularly appealing for the committee was her holistic approach toward design and libraries."

Houben is also conspicuously not Norman Foster. While the revered British architect is a technocrat, Houben is less interested in the machine. She wields spatial strategies and material solutions only after studying what people using a given building might actually want. In a booklet published by Mecanoo, the firm cites Charles and Ray Eames as an inspiration because they were "able to combine technical, human and playful aspects in a single solution." The same might be said of Mecanoo. There's a Houben quote on the firm's website, prominently placed on a page that lays out Mecanoo's philosophy. It says, "What counts in the end is the arrangement of form and emotion." And the NYPL project is surely one in which understanding the emotional component is as important as working out the spatial qualities of the buildings.

However, the most compelling reason Mecanoo might have landed the job is the work the firm has done in cooperation with Martinez + Johnson in Washington, D.C. on another politically fraught project, the landmark Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library. Commissioned in the 1960s and completed in 1972, the MLK is, essentially, the Washington equivalent of SASB, the city's flagship library. In a city largely defined by Beaux Arts splendor, the MLK is an exception, a work of high modernism, austere and corporate. Completed three years after his death, it's the only library designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. A long low glass box, four stories tall, with the trademark Mies dress, black glass broken by a stately procession of mullions, it could be a slice removed from the Seagram Building. Inside, the main floor is cavernous and strangely empty. On one end there's a cluster of Mies chairs, arranged on a carpet and occupied by a handful of rowdy teenagers. In the center is a check-out desk and an information desk. A long mural on one wall depicts the life of the Reverend King. Beneath the mural is a small display of architectural renderings that show the "amazing possibilities" for the building's future. But there's no one around to look at them.

Aside from a room with Internet-linked computers, which was well used, most rooms were lightly occupied. A large room marked "Adult Services," with stacks of non-fiction books near the windows, contained maybe 15 people widely distributed among a series of gray tables.

In a conversation with Washington D.C.'s head librarian, Richard Reyes-Gavilan, I mention that the building struck me as "unloved." He replies, "That is a term that I use about this building pretty frequently." In addition, Reyes–Gavilan suggests that the MLK is a symbol of Washington, D.C.'s unique status, dominated by and to a large extent ruled by the federal government. The library, it seems, was commissioned by the feds for an urban population that it didn't exactly comprehend or respect.

The library also serves as what Reyes-Gavilan describes as a "de facto social service agency." The city buses its homeless population from shelters where they spend the night to places where they can pass the day, like the library. "On the one hand, our mission is that we serve everyone, but on the other hand, it's hard to serve people who need much more than library services."

The preponderance of troubled patrons, common to many libraries, doesn't help the reputation of the MLK. "Here the people in New York, they love the building," Houben remarks. "In Washington they almost hate the building. People wanted to demolish it." In the 1990s, as real estate values in the area improved, there was talk of tearing the MLK down and replacing it with an office building, and former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, in the mid-2000s, suggested leasing the facility and using the proceeds to help finance a new library on the site of a former convention center nearby. Instead, in 2007, architectural enthusiasts succeeding in having it landmarked, inside and out, by the District of Columbia's Historic Preservation Review Board. This was a mixed blessing.

Mecanoo's plans for the MLK. Image courtesy Mecanoo.

"This building was dysfunctional and probably somewhat obsolete on the day that it opened," Reyes-Gavilan acknowledges. "The biggest problem that this building has is an utter lack of any type of vertical circulation, so you walk into this building and you have no idea what to do or how to get to the upper floors, and if you find a staircase, you would never in a million years believe that there are actually public staircases. They are dark. They feel dangerous. They are confusing." The interior walls of upper floors are made of ugly yellow brick where, Reyes-Gavilan informs me, Mies specified "unaffordable" marble.

Houben and her team have spent many hours filming the life of the MLK, trying to understand its quirks and remake it without breaking any of the rules that govern its landmark status. Houben notes, for example, that considering its exterior is almost entirely transparent, the MLK is stubbornly opaque within. "The whole staff is working without daylight in that building," she observes. So her overall idea is to open up the visual connections between rooms and between floors—literally using glass ceilings in some places. Architectural renderings released in September show updated uses for many areas, but more than that, the drawings emphasize new visual connections between those areas. The activities in one space are always visible from a variety of adjacent spaces so that the young, alert, engaged library users of the near future will be able to see what all the other young, alert, engaged users are doing. While this spatial porosity isn't a particularly radical architectural idea, in the context of the MLK, it is—structurally and metaphorically—a breakthrough.

Mecanoo's plans for the MLK stairways.

Similarly, the stairways, which, as Reyes-Gavilan mentioned, are currently narrow, dark, and hidden behind doors, will be open, curving, and conspicuously public. The social stairway, the gesture of the moment in corporate and academic architecture, will play a prominent role in the rehab.

And the renderings emphasize a menu of new activities: there's an informal performance space on a lower level, open to daylight, where a jazz combo is playing, and airy workshops where students can come learn skills like 3D printing. A floor called the "digital commons" will be punctuated with bright red-orange pods, each housing a small group meeting space. The children's area will also be defined by color—bookshelves and area rugs in fire engine red—and will include a slide that appears to be a clever reuse of one of the building's old, narrow stairwells. The library will be topped by a daylight-flooded double-height reading room—as close as you can get to Carrere and Hastings splendor in a 1970s Mies building—and a sophisticated, very Dutch-looking roof garden. Overall, the approach respects and amplifies the building's mid century Modernism but compensates for its native coldness with the color and vitality that is the hallmark of early 21st century Modernism. It's as if someone took a photo of the existing building and applied an Instagram filter to it, the kind that brightens and intensifies the image.

Rendering of Mecanoo's plans for the MLK library.

"That building has so much potential," Houben enthuses, using her favorite word. "The way we are changing it. To make it a public building, accessible. A walkable building. As Reyes-Gavilan sees it, Houben's team respects the library's Miesian bones while "infusing it with a sense of wonder and delight that the building has never had."

At the beginning of November, Houben—60, medium short hair that does as it pleases, rimless glasses, unstructured clothing—has just rented an apartment in the Gehry tower on Spruce Street with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge. She's trying to decide whether to buy a bicycle or join CitiBike. And she has to go back to the Netherlands almost immediately to receive a cultural prize, the Prins Berhnards Cultuurfonds award, from Queen Maxima.

We sit talking in a glassed-in conference room that overlooks the main floor of the Mid Manhattan branch. She points out that the former department store, as unimpressive as it may look, was actually a product of the same historic moment as SASB. She seems entirely uninterested in making big pronouncements, but is excited to discuss what she's figured out so far about the building in which we sit.

"It has a pocket park right here," she says, gesturing southward. "It's all blank walls. Imagine if we opened it up on that side. We can bring in much more light and have a much more transparent building." Later, she walks me around the corner to look at something called the Fifth Avenue Tower Urban Plaza. It's a skinny, uninspiring park filled with office workers eating lunch. Houben points out the park is bounded by the south wall of the library and every window bricked up. Her goal is to unbrick them. Her enthusiasm for her unloved libraries, the Mid Manhattan and the MLK, is contagious. But I wonder if she knows what she's gotten herself into. A beloved library, like SASB, is a harder problem to solve than the unloved library.

SASB is so complicated it's hard for me to honestly evaluate. There is clearly plenty of space in the building. Some of the many empty rooms were opened up when much of the library's administrative staff was relocated to a building on the corner of 39th Street. Other rooms once housed scholarly divisions that, rightly or wrongly, no longer exist. And some, it seems, are just there, forgotten within such a large building.

Like everyone in this city who deals in words, I've spent a large portion of my life there. Or, at least, I used to. In the 1980s, I was in the main library pretty much every week, and I learned how to navigate a complex, often opaque system, bouncing from the card catalog to the south reading room (back then, the north reading room was colonized by a photo copy center) to the business room to the science room to the periodical room. Research was a never-ending scavenger hunt, sometimes rewarding and other times infuriating. In the early 1990s, I moved to Greenwich Village and discovered that I could pay an annual fee to use New York University's Bobst Library. Its collection doesn't have the breadth of the NYPL's, but it afforded easy access to the things I most often needed, like microfilm. As the Internet became a fact of life, much of what I used to go to the library to find—especially magazine and newspaper archives—I could access without leaving my apartment.

So now I do research in SASB at most once or twice a year. I generally go when I have a broad subject that's a little outside my range. In recent years, assignments on things like the ethics of prison architecture or the history of the Manhattan Bridge have sent me to 42nd Street. Sometimes I can find exactly what I'm looking for, and other times rare and precious items owned by the library, like the construction drawings for the Manhattan Bridge, are nowhere to be found. I'm guessing a lot of people are like me: we love the library. We want it to be there when we need it. But we don't need it anywhere near as often as we used to. So who's the place for? Maybe the "Starbucks-slurping teenagers."

The central stacks, by the way, are still empty. Despite a renovation in the 1990s by Davis Brody Bond that addressed a wide range of issues, the central stacks do not have adequate humidity control or fire suppression. The new plan is to store the bulk of the books, some 3.7 million of them, in two levels of stacks that extend behind the library beneath Bryant Park. The first level of the Bryant Park Stack Extension (BPSE; pronounced "bipsy") has been in service since the late 1990s. The second level, a $24 million project, is just now being built out. It was determined that completing BPSE would be less expensive that bringing the stacks beneath the Rose Reading Room up to "acceptable modern-day preservation standards," a project estimated to cost $47 million. (According to the New York Times, the books, which will begin arriving in April, will be sorted by height rather than Dewey Decimal number and tracked by bar code.)

The library sees the completion of BPSE 2 as an act of good faith demonstrating that the intention is to keep the bulk of the library's collection onsite. And, in the near future, the vacant central stacks will provide a temporary refuge to the Mid Manhattan library's collection of 300,000 volumes (which don't require a highly climate controlled storage facility) when that branch is closed for its renovation.

Still, the library's critics are not appeased. "Our biggest concern," says preservationist Theodore Grunewald, vice president of the Committee to Save the NYPL, "is as long as those stacks continue to remain empty, the danger exists that the New York Public Library will eventually declare them obsolete." The fear, I guess, is that Foster's plan, or something like it, is lying in wait and will eventually be executed.

When I mention the rancor over the central stacks to Kennedy, she deflects the question: "Look, the number one thing is that we're able to deliver the books and serve our community the most effective way possible. And I believe we're still able to do that."

Houben, for her part, has a sensitivity to the value and significance of libraries that should make her a non-controversial figure—although nothing is ever that simple. "While we are largely 'agnostic' regarding the choice of Francine Houben as architect, we want to be positive, and to give Mecanoo 'the benefit of the doubt,'" Grunewald wrote me in a follow up email to our conversation. The main worry of the preservationists and scholars for whom Grunewald speaks is that the institution is still not being transparent in its planning process. "We're concerned that the new plans are being again developed behind a veil of secrecy as impenetrable as the veil that shrouded the discarded Foster scheme."

I'm not convinced that there is an impenetrable veil. What I do believe is that the library has put its future in the hands of an architect who is going to take all the time she needs to figure the thing out. We will not have a clear picture of the library's future until Houben does. When I ask her about her theory of the contemporary library, she says: "Maybe most important to everybody is that libraries are not about books." I imagine alarm bells going off all over town. Of course, she means it in the best possible way. "Because people have a misunderstanding that libraries are a storage space for books. And it's not…it's about people want to get knowledge through them. It can be by books, it can be by meeting other people. It can be through access to the Internet."

Houben's view dovetails neatly with Kennedy's: "To really focus on what it means to be a literate human being in this day and age. That's what libraries always have been and that's what this library is."

And that's where we're at. There is, I believe, a commendable desire at the NYPL to update and revitalize the Mid Manhattan Branch and to better connect it to the life of the research library across the street. The operative word, at the moment, is "campus." But there's no quick fix, no big glassy architectural object to rally around or hate on. Instead there will be a whole series of incremental gestures—more daylight, more small group meeting spaces, more rooms for writers. SASB may even wind up with full fledged café. That's all fine.

But I think Houben and Kennedy may be mistaken about the books. The books—all three million or so of them—really do matter. They are central to this story. Many of those who were rallying against the Foster plan tried to make their preservation effort about stacks themselves, about saving an early 20th century marvel of engineering. As attuned as I am to the beauty of engineering, I think that approach was somewhat wrongheaded. It's not about the shelves; it's about the books.

The further we move from a society in which print plays a starring role, the more profound a serious collection of ink and paper becomes. The less often we need to use the print collection, the more crucial it is that it's still there when we need it. It's a bit like the building itself. The farther we move from the Beaux Arts style of architecture, the more potent a building like the one currently known as Stephen A. Schwartzman becomes. Just as the dazzling dimensions of the Rose Reading Room bestow added gravitas on everything you do there—even if you're just posting something on Facebook—the books do the same. They, collectively, are as much a landmark as the building. This particular library is about the books. Houben cannot go too far wrong, assuming she figures that out.

Editor: Sara Polsky

· New York Public Library coverage [Curbed NY]
· Imagining the Design of the Library That Does Everything [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]


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