No, really.

Article and sketch by Andy Sturdevant

Last summer, I had a long-term writing project that required me to sit down at my laptop and focus intently for a few hours a day. My unfinished attic was getting hot, and I had worn out my welcome at most of my neighborhood coffee shops after a few weeks.

As many of you working on deadline know, you need a particular type of atmosphere to focus effectively. For me, it’s somewhere quiet, elegant but utilitarian, with a little bit of bustle to keep me engaged, but also—and not to get too cosmic here—possessing an indefinable quality that speaks to an aspirational, democratic vision of shared civic life. You know, if that’s not too much to ask.

For me, this means that I need to be surrounded by concrete.

My appreciation for midcentury concrete isn’t universal, I know. I remember people of my parents’ generation hated concrete when I was growing up in the 1980s. Many unfairly compared midcentury concrete buildings to old Richardsonian brick piles. The central library in my hometown, for example, paired a Beaux Arts building with a three-story brutalist addition, and people complained about “the new side” endlessly.

I loved it, though. The old side felt pleasant and safely historical, but I liked studying in the new side, inside those exposed concrete walls and under those waffle-form ceilings; there, I felt like I was part of a futuristic society that worked. As I grew older, I discovered that others in my generation had similarly developed an admiration for the brutalism they’d grown up with.

Where did I go to make headway on my writing project? Well, I put together a list of every library in the Metropolitan Library Service agency (MELSA) system built between 1960 and 1980. Over several weeks, I parked myself at a table or in a quiet room at each of them, from New Prague (1962, clerestory windows) to Hayden Heights (1979, white glazed bricks, circular skylights). I’ve never had a happier month, at least in terms of my architectural surroundings.

It might have been even more enjoyable had I been able to visit one of the true gems in the Hennepin County Library system: Ralph Rapson’s 1964 Arvonne Fraser Library, a former bank-turned-community-hub near the University of Minnesota, where Rapson led the School of Architecture for 30 years. Formerly known as the Southeast Library, the single-story building was being renovated all of last summer.

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The Arvonne Fraser renovation, completed in February,  was part of a larger Hennepin County Library effort to retool four midcentury and late-midcentury branch libraries with improved accessibility, functionality, and technology. In shaping these updates for Arvonne Fraser, library officials and their designers—MacDonald & Mack Architects and Quinn Evans Architects—were keen to preserve the highly distinctive, character-defining features of Rapson’s design.

The interior experience, in particular, is defined by concrete, with Rapson having interspersed skylights of various sizes in the expansive waffle-slab ceiling in a way that manages to be both dignified and playful. The irregular grid pattern overhead dramatizes the scale of the interior. It must have seemed vaguely space-age to its early visitors; like much science fiction from that era, it still feels, more than a half-century later, expressive of a promising future yet to come.

“The forms and shapes show Rapson taking advantage of the unique spatial quality you can create with reinforced concrete,” says MacDonald & Mack partner Todd Grover, AIA.

The renovation included the replacement of 1960s lighting with contemporary fixtures that better reveal the dimension and varied textures in the concrete forms. That’s an important upgrade, because cast-in-place concrete often has far more texture and detail than a chilly uniform slab. Concrete shaped by wood formwork, for example, retains the wood-grain impressions of the long-gone supports like a fossil record. “We love to show people how concrete and the brutalist style can offer a sense of comfort and welcome,” says Grover.

But while concrete retains its textured character over time, it also ages in a way that belies its apparent strength and solidity. The specific challenges that Grover and his team faced with the exterior of the library, in particular, speak to a broad set of challenges faced by preservationists working with concrete. Like most materials, concrete weathers, cracks, and breaks down over time, which eventually leads to the corrosion of its steel reinforcements.

You might think patching the cracked and crumbling spots with more concrete is the obvious fix, but in the case of an historic building, it’s not quite that simple. A building’s surface is dynamic, changing over time, of course, but also in various weather and atmospheric conditions. Sun, snow, rain, and humidity all alter the appearance of buildings—especially those with a patina. The architects who renovate historic buildings with concrete exteriors have to take all of these conditions into consideration.

“If we want to re-create the texture or color of the original concrete, we can do that,” Grover explains. “We developed an exterior patch for the library that was nearly a perfect match. The problem is, the patch is a new concrete, and it’s very water-resistant, where the older concrete is not as resistant. When it rains, the surface of the older concrete absorbs more water, and you can see the patches. So, it’s never going to look completely uniform.”

And thus preservation is as much an art as it is a science.

I ask Grover if the architects of high modernism—of all those midcentury structures composed of concrete, steel, and glass—expected their buildings to retain a smooth purity over the decades. “Well,” he says, waving his hand, “I’ve never read of a modernist saying, ‘This building can’t age.’” He then relates the preservation of these buildings to a lesson MacDonald & Mack founding principal Bob Mack, FAIA, is fond of imparting: “This building is 70 years old. I’m also 70 years old. I have some wrinkles and gray hair. The building doesn’t need to be perfect.”

In other words, it’s OK for an historical building—even a modern one—to look like an historical building. In the rain, the patinated Arvonne Fraser Library reveals the patches that will protect it for another 50 years.

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As I write this in April, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Arvonne Fraser Library, like the rest of the Hennepin County Library system, is closed. I miss spending time in community libraries, especially those of Arvonne Fraser’s character and vintage. They manifest a confidence in scale and technique, and transparency in how they were built, with the texture of the concrete revealing the method of construction. In addition to embodying an optimism for the future, they feel solid and inviting in an egalitarian way, as a library or civic building should.

Grover reflects on the experience of walking into a space like Arvonne Fraser Library, with stirring geometry and choreographed light and shadow all around. “Concrete has a presence,” he says. “There is intentionality in the way it is used. There are some spatial qualities that you can only get with board-formed concrete.

“You can point to a concrete form, and say, ‘That couldn’t have been built out of steel, or out of wood or masonry,’” he adds. “‘Only concrete.’”