Agave Library Environmental Graphics

Branching Out

Hardworking graphics add punch to the community-centered design of the 21st century library.

Think of a public library, and what comes to mind? Perhaps the red-brick blocks of our youth, where fluorescent lighting cast a yellowish glow and anything above a whisper was strictly taboo? Fast-forward to today, and a slew of newly built libraries are conversation starters, awash in natural light, with vibrant colors and patterns beckoning card-holders to linger and explore.

The Seattle Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, revolutionized library design when it opened in 2004. With its unconventional steel-and-glass architecture, colorful interior design, and inviting public spaces, the 400,000-sq.-ft. building reimagined the public library as an iconic destination for learning and lounging. Across the pond, London’s Idea Stores—a retail-inspired concept for libraries by architect David Adjaye—take cues from their fashionable neighbors, with an emphasis on transparency. After the first Idea Store opened in 2002, library traffic was three times higher than the two libraries it had replaced. Adjaye has since been tapped to design branch libraries in Washington, D.C.

What’s driving this sea change in library design from staid to stellar?

“Things are changing so fast and people’s expectations of a library and what it needs to be and who it serves are all very dynamic,” says Richard Jensen, vice president of Will Bruder + Partners (Phoenix). When the architecture firm conceptualized the first of three libraries for the City of Phoenix, building cookie-cutter branches was out of the question, and community involvement was key.

“We decided that each community should have a say at the beginning of the process in what they wanted their library to be, then we hired the best architect the budget would allow and got out of the way,” says Shera Farnham, assistant city librarian for the City of Phoenix.

As a result, collections have gotten smaller and the libraries have focused on the most sought-after items for each community, reducing the amount of shelving by about a third. More computers and computer training rooms have been added, open flexible spaces abound, and colorful, comfortable furnishings appeal to all ages.

More emphasis is also being placed on signage and environmental graphics. And it’s not just the designers and architects who are pushing for it. When a bond allowed the Plainsboro Public Library in New Jersey to build larger digs, Library Director Jinny Baeckler made sure there was enough money in the budget for graphics. “I didn’t want to gloss over signage,” Baeckler explains. Circulation rose 13% when a new signage system was installed in the old library, so she understood the value of helping visitors—particularly the community’s large non-English-speaking Asian population—get where they needed to go easily.

From a budget- and site-challenged structure in Phoenix to Plainsboro’s not-so-plain new building, here are two shining examples of 21st century libraries.

Succulent Surprise: Agave Branch Library 

You don’t need a big budget to make a big splash, and the new Agave Library in Phoenix is proof. “This was the last of four libraries built on a bond, and money was running out,” says Richard Jensen, vice president of Will Bruder + Partners. With a budget of just $6.65 million for a 25,400-sq.-ft. building, the architects also had to deal with a less-than-ideal site: the library is situated on a blighted wasteland between a residential neighborhood and a strip mall, and behind a carwash.

Never one to balk at a challenge, the Bruder team found the solution in signage—specifically, a modern version of a western cowboy facade that would amplify the library’s visibility while hiding the building’s otherwise nondescript, budget-friendly masonry-block construction. “We knew we had to do something that really stretched out, was big and audacious to reach out to the streets, and that’s what a cowboy front does,” Jensen explains.

The 207-ft.-long oversized scrim, which simply declares “Agave,” tapers down from 40 ft. at its peak to 26 ft., deliberately scaled to meet zoning ordinance height limitations as the sign gets closer to the adjacent residential neighborhood. Constructed of randomly placed hat channels of varying widths and depths, faced with white reflective vinyl and illuminated with floodlamps, the billboard/facade is hard to miss.

According to Josh Livingston, principal at sign fabricator ASI (Oklahoma City), Bruder deserves a lot of credit for getting around sign ordinances by convincing the city that it was public art. Jensen adds, “Typically, you couldn’t get away with this, but it’s a testament to the city’s desire to do great things when it comes to public libraries.”

The building is designed with an open, flexible plan and very few walls, allowing for future modularity. Signage is used sparingly but with impact. “We try to do a minimal amount of signage, only where it needs to be,” Farnham explains. “I like to think that the architecture acts as a silent sign.” For example, a cloud-like public art project by Kendall Buster over the information desk draws attention with no words. And because everything is on one floor, wayfinding is more intuitive: main areas are defined by concrete flooring, seating areas are carpeted, and an exterior reading garden is visible through a glass wall. 

However, where it is used, signage is “like a sprinkling of candy” on an otherwise neutral palette, says ASI’s Livingston. Section signs are constructed of aluminum with neon-lit cutout letters in blue, red, and green. Fabrication and installation elements are exposed rather than hidden because of budgetary restrictions. For example, the neon is visible from the side, the screws are exposed, and aircraft cable from the ceiling-hung signs is carefully arranged to lend an organic feel, “like branches from a tree,” according to Jensen.

On the door to the children’s “story tower”—a sculptural, white space with colorful LED lighting—each letter in the word “story” is comprised of storybook titles in 10-point type. From a distance, kids only see the word “story.” But up close, the smaller story titles become more visible.

Since its 2009 opening, the Agave Library has earned accolades from the design world as well as the community it serves. “It’s very busy, and what I like about it is that each group—adults, teens, kids—has found its place in the library,” Farnham says.

In fact, many elements of the library were derived during initial meetings Bruder hosted to gain input from the community. They wanted a comfortable, inviting reading room, an outdoor space that’s part of the indoor building, and the ability to read next to nature. And they got it all. They also got something they didn’t ask for: an extraordinary building. “The ‘wow’ factor is intense. You know you’re not in an ordinary building,” Farnham says. “Everybody has their own space—all in 25,000 sq. ft. behind a carwash.”

--By Jenny Reising, segdDESIGN No. 31, 2011


Client:  Phoenix Public Library

Location:  Phoenix

Client Team:  Shera Farnham, Julaine Warner, Wally Scholz (Phoenix Public Library); Jon Kolstad (City of Phoenix Engineering and Architectural Services Department); Ed Lebow, Donna Isaac (Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture Public Art Program)

Design:  Will Bruder + Partners

Design Team:  Will Bruder (director of design); Richard Jensen (project principal); Chris Balzano, Dominique Price (architects); Marjorie Fichthorn Whitton (interior designer)

Fabrication:  ASI

Consultants:  Kendall Buster (public artist), Roger Smith Lighting Design (lighting), McKay Conant Hoover (acoustics), Ten Eyck Landscape Architecture (landscape architecture), Burgion Group (emerging literacy), Hardison/Downey Construction (contractor)

Photos:  Bill Timmerman, Timmerman Photography (except as noted)


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