Chicago Public Library, Chinatown Branch
Brian Lee, FAIA
Chicago, IL, USA
Brian Lee, FAIA, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP
Erin Feigel, Marketing Manager, Wight & Company (Architect of Record) Art Del Muro, Managing Architect, Public Building Commission of Chicago (Developer)
Brian Bannon, Commissioner, Chicago Public Library
Jon Miller, President, Hedrich Blessing
The Chinatown Branch Library’s design balances elegant but simple aesthetics, pragmatic programming, and green design solutions to create a center that serves the community’s needs and enhances its vibrancy, both now and in the future. On its exterior, a predominately transparent, high-performance glass curtain wall maximizes visibility, connecting passersby to activity inside and library patrons to the surrounding cityscape. Aluminum vertical fins shade the façade, controlling solar gain and glare while keeping the interior comfortable and framing views to the community. Inside, all spaces connect to a central atrium, providing clear orientation, spatial cohesion, and easy connections between staff and patrons while minimizing the building’s total area. This central space serves as lounge, exhibition, and pre-function space and is lit from a skylight oculus and reflector above. The community meeting area, highly visible and accessible to maximize its use, and children’s zone occupy the active ground level while teen and adult zones are on the quieter second level. Very few enclosed spaces ensure maximum flexibility and acoustical fabric screens provide definition when needed. Furnishings and book storage solutions, including eye-height shelving and community worktables, are similarly flexible so as to accommodate multiple uses and space arrangements. It was important to CPL and SOM to involve Chinatown’s residents in the design of the library during the design process. In addition to community review meetings, this collaboration is best illustrated via the 8-feet-high x 60-feet-long mixed-media mural that spans the wall at the top of the central stair. Chicago artist CJ Hungerman produced the piece, titled Universal Transverse Immigration Proclamation, as part of the City of Chicago’s public art program. Hungerman engaged the community in workshops to understand the history of Chinatown, and then distilled these memories and observations into the content of the work via marker and paint.
Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood is currently undergoing a period of unprecedented growth. The Chinatown Branch Library is one of the Chicago Public Library’s busiest branches, and its former facilities could no longer accommodate the community’s shifting pedagogical, social, and technological needs. The new library has been designed to fulfill these changes so that its utility as a public neighborhood node endures over time. When the Public Building Commission (PBC) of Chicago procured the library site, it was to ensure that this original design would maximize the angular, prominent site and establish the new branch library as an information hub within the neighborhood. The competition brief called for a library of 20,000 SF distributed across either two or three stories. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) worked with CPL staff to create a more efficient, 16,000 SF two-story building, characterized by its flexible multi-function spaces, high level of interior visibility, and aesthetic cues that tie into Chinatown’s and Chicago’s heritage. The new library sits at the key intersection of Archer Avenue and South Wentworth Avenue—the nexus of Chicago’s historic southern and emerging northern Chinatown neighborhoods—and is adjacent to the Cermak-Chinatown CTA Red Line train stop. It is designed as a rounded, triangular shaped structure that reflects ancient Feng Shui principles by matching the avenues’ existing alignment without creating aggressive corners and orienting the entrance off the new Wentworth axis. This form allows a fluid movement of pedestrians, abundant landscaping throughout the site, and opens up view corridors so that the building can be seen on all sides. Inside, the efficient two-story design alludes to a traditional Chinese courtyard plan, focusing the general circulation around a skylit multi-purpose space. This plan allows for programmatic overlap, thereby increasing long-term utility.
Since opening in late August 2015, the library has quickly become Chinatown’s educational and social center. While the old Chinatown branch was the most visited library branch in the CPL system, the new branch has exceeded expectations. On opening day, CPL welcomed over 6,500 patrons into the building. From September through December 2015, over 95,000 visitors checked out nearly 55,500 items, an increase of over 20,000 visitors and 23,000 items checked out as compared to the same time period during 2014. The programmed spaces of the ground floor community room, children’s space, adult reading and the teen YouMedia area very successfully serve the needs of the diverse library patrons and enable them to use the library as an invigorating place for reading, learning, and discovering. Support areas are well received by the staff for their effectiveness and humane environment. Outside of its functional success, the library has also helped elevate Chinatown’s architectural character. Its unique but timeless form and high level of visibility respond intelligently to its site’s characteristics, leveraging the angularity and bounding conditions to simultaneously stand out from the surroundings and yet visually and physically connect with the community. The “off the shelf” components of the structure, building systems, and enclosure speak to a well-crafted, pragmatic attitude of construction tectonics and durability. The qualities of natural light, space, color, and views create a memorable sense of place within the community. Sustainability also plays a central role in the library’s design. It is on track to achieve LEED® Gold (and only a few points from Platinum) and includes many features that make evident its commitment to improving the environment. These include an innovative exposed radiant heating and cooling ceiling grid, low artificial lighting due to abundant natural daylighting, a façade sun shading screen, and a lush sloped green roof. Together, these design elements help the Chinatown Branch Library serve as a key community anchor and an enduring cultural asset, setting a strong precedent for 21st century library design within Chicago’s urban fabric.