Among all of the new DC public libraries, the Bellevue and Francis Gregory branches east of the river have the strongest design. Without sacrificing functionality and accessibility, they put sophisticated works of architecture in historically underserved neighborhoods. But photos don’t tell the whole story. You have to go see them yourself.


Francis Gregory Library in Hillcrest.




Designed by British architect David Adjaye, who’s also designing the Museum of African-American History and Culture, the libraries are a reminder that it’s possible for a work of world-class architecture to also be a comfortable third place.


Francis Gregory library atrium. Photo by the author.


When the first renderings of the new libraries were published, I was unimpressed by them. But after a day-long excursion to see all of the libraries built under the tenure of library director Ginnie Cooper, I have to admit that I was surprised at how brilliant Bellevue and Francis Gregory are.

Unlike the new libraries at Benning, Anacostia, Tenleytown, and Shaw, which were designed by Freelon Group and Davis Brody Bond, Adjaye’s libraries don’t have an immediately recognizable, iconic look.

They’re both fairly straightforward. Bellevue Library is a box pierced with skylight shafts and a few large “pods” in front. Francis Gregory library is a diamond-patterned box, filled with blocks to divide the space. What distinguishes them is how Adjaye and associate architect, Wiencek+Associates, divide the spaces with layers of books, glass, and glossy surfaces that produce a warm, flexible environment.

Both libraries use glass to interact with the street

Glass is an important part of Adjaye’s recent projects, like the Moscow’s Skolkovo School of Management, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, or the Whitechapel Idea Store in London, which like Bellevue and Gregory is a library in an inner-city neighborhood.


The side of the Francis Gregory in winter.


Adjaye doesn’t use glass to erase a building’s form like so many modern office buildings. Although the architects typically want the building to be transparent, minimizing the difference between outside and inside, this effect only works under the right light. Otherwise it’s a mirror or it’s so dark you can’t see the building. This is why we see so many depictions at the twilight “rendering hour.” Dusk is the only time when, because the interior of a building is as bright as the exterior, the glass disappears.

Instead, Adjaye uses what are usually undesirable reflections to multiply the sensation of the building’s surroundings. Viewing the Gregory Library from dead on, the alternating diamonds of gray mirror and clear glass playfully juxtapose reflections of the neighborhood with views of the interior.


Interior and exterior. Photo by the author.


Moving to the side, the reflectivity of the clear glass increases, and the diamonds, the walls, and the building disappear more and more into its wooded site, leaving a steel canopy soaring above a symmetrical forest. In the back, the building disappears. In the front, inside and outside are superimposed on each other, reminding viewers that both are public spaces. 


The Bellevue library has a strong street presence. Photo by Eric Fidler.


The Bellevue Library has a stronger street presence, but it still plays with openness and transparency. Its glass facade creates a relationship between the interior and the street. Adjaye placed windows to provide clear views out to the sidewalk. Outside, glulam beams, a kind of timber, help screen the interior and heighten the transparency by cutting glare on the windows.

Like a sidewalk cafe, Bellevue’s front room “pods” become wonderful places to observe city life while feeling comfortably separate from it.

Inside, reflective surfaces create a sense of place

Inside the Bellevue Library, the wide-open spaces are divided by different-colored sheets of glass that reflect and distort views. Black glass hides the bathrooms on the first floor, while upstairs, dark yellow glazing hides the glare from a skylight. Through the glass partitions you can see to the other end of the library, through several sheets of glass. However, because each pane is also reflecting its surroundings, you see transparent images of the space you’re in, with other reflections giving readers the feeling of being in an intimate, private room.


Well-lighted desks are arranged so readers can watch the street in moments of pause.


Dark, reflective walls also add to both libraries’ sense of place. They use the well-worn trick of implying space behind the wall’s surface, “opening it up,” while avoiding the hokiness of an optical mirror. They bring light in from outside, and mix it with the colors of the room they contain.

Both the dark walls and the translucent glass let readers sense their surroundings, but loosen the figure of reflected individuals. A viewer can perceive a presence without having to worry about staring or even looking up. To have that kind of casual awareness while focusing on a book felt very relaxing.


Lights in pentagonal arrangement imply the presence of rooms, even if there are no walls.


However, the most astonishing use of reflective surfaces is in the story room at the Gregory Library. Physically, it’s just an oval room bounded by walls of vertical lumber. Every other piece is removed at a child’s eye level and the resulting slots are painted gloss black. Within the wall reflect in the trees, books, and structure through drawing in street scenes. As you move around, the angles change and the reflections move and blur, like you’re animating them.

See buildings in real-life, not renderings

Neither the Bellevue or Gregory libraries have a “wow” moment. They are very much about the experience of individuals in the spaces the building creates. Because the architecture relies on a person’s physical presence, it’s hard to understand through a photograph. In fact, the images I’ve seen are less beautiful than the ambiance of the building.


Early rendering of the Bellevue Library from DC Public Libraries.


In 2013, architecture is seen mostly through carefully curated images. An architect’s largest audience is often on the web, who will consume and discard architecture through images. Renderings, because they look almost real, can be the most misleading. This emphasis on the photograph feeds back on itself to aggravate a fixation on “iconic” buildings, whose memorable images can be telegraphed around the world and recognized instantly.

But the people who are most affected by a work of architecture, whether positively or negatively, are the ones who live with the building. Dramatic architectural gestures are only so relevant to the creation of great urban spaces. Often, they’re detrimental to to the sense of place.

More than anything, Adjaye’s buildings remind me that to understand a work of architecture, you have to visit it. The basic architectural elements of space, program, and material are so interrelated that the quality of the buildings is impossible to capture. Don’t trust me, and don’t try to form an opinion during your lunch break. Go east of the river and see for yourself.

Cross-posted on цarьchitect.