The design of a new regional library takes its inspiration from the form and experience of actual books

By Joel Hoekstra

We’ve all seen buildings that take their cue from what happens inside: a two-story wooden barrel that serves as a root-beer stand, an immense concrete muskie that serves as the home to the Fishing Hall of Fame. This kind of literal interpretation is the architectural equivalent of a one-liner.

Thoughtful designers take some of these ideas and abstract them. The narrative and functions of the building are still reflected in the structure or design details, but the representation is less overt, the connections more veiled, the associations more artfully rendered. Such is the case with the Ramsey County Library system’s new branch library in Shoreview, a suburb located just north of St. Paul.

The project got its start when Ramsey County Library decided, as part of a system-wide overhaul, to elevate the status of the existing Shoreview branch, transforming it into a regional hub. As such, the building would have to be larger to accommodate expanded programming, community meeting rooms, interlibrary loan operations, and other visible and behind-the-scenes functions. HGA Architects and Engineers, which assisted Ramsey County with the master plan, developed a contemporary scheme for a facility that could stand on the same site.

But area residents were not taken with the design. “One of the things the community told us in response was that they wanted the new building to look like the existing civic buildings,” says library manager William Michel. That likely meant integrating the brown-brick exterior of the original library, and perhaps other elements of the surrounding city buildings.

HGA embraced the feedback, pivoting in its approach. “I’ve always worked to deconstruct the image of the architect as a caped expert, à la Frank Lloyd Wright, who imposes his own will onto clients,” say HGA principal Victor Pechaty, AIA. “I love working with clients, and embrace their input on the building aesthetic. After all, they’re the ones who are going to use it, work in it, experience it every day.”

Pechaty and his team began thinking about the structure of books—their general shape, how they look when splayed open, how the cover and pages create different lines and articulation. Their explorations culminated in a building that subtly plays with these qualities in various ways: The main entrance, for example, forms a portal that’s clad in red brick on the outside and lined with white on the inside, much like a cover over the pages of a book; and in targeted sections of the facade, Norman brick is set vertically in soldier courses onto horizontal bands, suggesting books on a shelf. Surface articulation creates the sense that some of the “books” have been partially pulled off the shelf, adding visual texture.

“Books are not going away,” says Pechaty. But neither are the community rooms and computer stations that have come to be core components of the 21st-century library. The Shoreview facility includes a range of comfortable, technology-rich spaces in which kids can learn and play and teens and adults can read, work, or meet friends. What’s more, the design anticipates the continued evolution of library functions with built-in flexibility. Case in point: The various collections and activity areas in the open-plan interior are given shape by the insertion of three walnut-clad boxes housing study rooms, display alcoves, and offices. But the wood walls are not load-bearing, Pechaty explains; they could be altered or removed at any time.

Michel says that patrons of all ages seem to enjoy the new building, which opened in early 2017. “Over time, as librarians, we’ve learned the language of architecture, and we’re better able to articulate our needs,” says Michel. “Of all the buildings we’ve done in the last 10 years, I think this one is the most successful.”

Location: Shoreview, Minnesota
Client: Ramsey County
Architect and landscape architect: HGA Architects and Engineers
Principal-in-charge: Mia Blanchett, AIA
Project lead designer: Victor Pechaty, AIA
General contractor: Adolfson & Peterson Construction
Size: 38,000 square feet
Cost: $12,285,000
Completion: January 2017
Photographer: Paul Crosby

“The very subtle but beautiful brick detailing is the book binding; it creates this texture in certain key walls, with the rest of the exterior clad in two different patterns of brick. And the interiors are the white pages of the book. We thought the concept was very clear and very elegantly executed.”
—Wendell Burnette, FAIA