Does Snøhetta’s design for a new library at Temple University spell the end of books?

Architecture East News Newsletter
(Courtesy Snøhetta)

(Courtesy Snøhetta)

Libraries are temples for books, though Snøhetta’s plan for a new library at Temple University in Philadelphia argues that you can have one without the other. The design of the Temple University Library is influenced by the academies of ancient Greece, which privileged social spaces for discourse over the storage and management of written materials.

(Courtesy Snøhetta)

(Courtesy Snøhetta)

It almost seems as if  the Oslo- and New York–based firm is pioneering a new typology within its own practice. In December 2015, Snøhetta unveiled its “library without books,” also based on the Greek stoas and agoras, for Toronto’s Ryerson University.

Including Temple, Snøhetta has designed eleven libraries, both standalone and as part of larger programs.

(Courtesy Snøhetta)

(Courtesy Snøhetta)

Although Ryerson’s library was built first, Snøhetta has been in talks with Temple about a new library since 2013. The library’s wooden arches mark entryways that slice into the rough stone facade. Steel mullions support pleated frameless glass windows, increasing transparency from the outside at the main entrances.

(Courtesy Snøhetta)

(Courtesy Snøhetta)

Arches continue into the sweeping main lobby, where a three-story, domed atrium features an oculus that serves as a wayfinder by opening up the library’s upper-floor functions visually to students in the main lobby. A cafe and a 24/7 study space on the ground floor round out the interior program.

(Courtesy Snøhetta)

(Courtesy Snøhetta)

Classroom space extends outside, with stepped seating on the green roof and ground-floor plazas to encourage congregation.

To manage Temple’s two million-plus books, periodicals, DVDs, and other materials, the new library uses an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) that allows the library to devote more square footage to “learning spaces” and less space to the stacks. The video below shows an ASRS in action at Santa Clara University.

The idea (ideal, to some) of libraries as musty repositories of hardcopy information is patently outdated. Librarians are quick to embrace their role not only as collection managers but as communication and content facilitators, whatever the medium.

The impulse behind the design, however, recalls the failed 2012 Foster + Partners redesign the New York Public Library‘s main branch on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. Plans called for removing seven floors of stacks under the Rose Main Reading Room to create a 300-person workspace. New York culture leaders widely criticized the plan for moving most of the library’s books off-site, or underground. (Dutch firm Mecanoo was awarded the commission in September 2015.)

(Courtesy Snøhetta)

(Courtesy Snøhetta)

Though the top floor at the Temple Library is programmed for a sunny reading room with stacks, books are explicitly not the design’s focus. It’s worth noting that around 1,800 years passed between the founding of Platonic Academy and the invention of the printing press. The ancient Greek academies privileged social space over materials management because there were far, far fewer books; information transmission today takes place primarily though image and text.

Perhaps the invocation of the scholarly ancient Greeks softens the capitulation to a depressing reality: the 2010 Collegiate Learning Assessment found that one-third of college students read less than 40 pages per week for classes.

The library is one part of a $300 million campus expansion plan that includes a to-be-built quadrangle, the public space at the heart of the campus’ new social and academic core. Construction of the library should be complete by 2018.

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