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06.24.2014
Uptown's Living Room
Vincent James Associates Architects brings Minneapolis' Walker Library out of the ground.
Stainless steel and bronze glint in the sunlight, while interior surfaces are largely matte and muted.
Courtesy VJAA

The Walker Library has a storied history. A Hennepin Country Library branch located in the bustling Minneapolis neighborhood of Uptown near H.W.S Cleveland’s famous Chain of Lakes park system, the original 1911 building was a stately Beaux Arts design. In 1981, one of the country’s few underground public libraries, and the city’s first earth-sheltered building, was constructed across the street.

A lack of natural light, water seepage, and accessibility issues plagued the subterranean structure. After years of discussion among stakeholders, the Hennepin County Library commissioned the Minneapolis firm VJAA to design a new, above ground 30,000-square-foot building, using the existing pit left after demolition for a 15,000-square-foot parking lot beneath the library.

 

Among the stakeholders was an active Community Advisory Committee, which crafted a vision statement that guided VJAA. Key among the committee’s concerns was “getting the library out of the ground and up into the light,” said Lois Lenroot-Ernt, of Hennepin County Library’s Capital Projects Office. The building also needed to have “a strong civic presence.”

On April 26, an airy new library, with a simple modern form and floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides, opened to community acclaim. “We met those objectives,” said Lenroot-Ernt of the vision statement. “The building makes a statement of its own, but fits beautifully into the community.”

The one-story library (storage is on a lower level) sits at the corner of Hennepin and Lagoon avenues—a major thoroughfare for vehicles, transit, pedestrians, and bicyclists. So the architects moved the entry to the park side to relate better to the original library and the adjacent VJAA-designed park, and “let the flow of traffic wrap around the building,” said Vincent James, a VJAA principal.

 
Site plan (left). Axonometric view (right).
 

At the same time, the architects ensured that the library would respond to and re-establish the corner by widening the sidewalk, canting a lower pane of glass in response to the flow, and putting a bend in the upper part of the building. In doing so, “the library also makes a strong tie with rhythms and animation of people in the area and the street itself,” said Jennifer Yoos, another VJAA principal.

The steel-frame building is clad in precast and stainless steel shingles with a bronze patina “that picks up ambient colors of light and changes all the time,” said James. “Sky cubes” clad in patina-less stainless steel are fitted with yellow glass, “to bring in light that changes throughout the day and through the seasons, and makes things pop in the interior,” added Yoos.

 

While many of the interior materials are matte and muted, including the FSC-certified walnut, the white trusses, and magenta, bright blue, and grass green walls “play with the austere walnut surfaces,” said Yoos. “Because it’s a simple building, and Uptown is an eclectic and vibrant neighborhood with lots of cultural diversity, we didn’t want to bring a highly restrained aesthetic to the library’s interior.”

VJAA did, however, raise the floor five feet inside so readers can enjoy the daylight and the quiet of a library, “but experience a flow of energy and traffic and people around them that’s hypnotizing,” said Yoos. The raised floor also houses ventilation displacement cooling attached to a high-performance heating and cooling system with energy recovery.

Overhangs protect the front of the building from heat gain, while electric shades inside regulate heat and light. In addition to reading areas, the new library includes additional computers and an iPad dispensary, study areas, collaborative workspaces, conference rooms, a lecture/presentation room, and children and teen areas.

Uptown has an abundance of public spaces, including the Chain of Lakes parkways and the Midtown Greenway bike path. “But they’re all exterior,” said James. “Most of the interior spaces are private or business. We describe the new library as the living room of Uptown.”

Camille LeFevre