VJAA’s new Hennepin County Walker Library takes its cues from its bustling Uptown site and surroundings

By Frank Edgerton Martin

Home to the crossing of the old Hennepin and Lake streetcar lines, Uptown enters its second century as one of Minneapolis’ liveliest commercial hubs. Here is where the city meets Lake Calhoun, and where architects Liebenberg & Kaplan designed a soaring marquee for Uptown Theatre—an architectural innovation so tall it had to be approved by the FAA.

The neighborhood’s new Hennepin County Walker Library is as much an expression of the city and the media of our time as Uptown Theatre was in the 1930s. Architecture firm VJAA’s innovation is just subtler. There is no tall sign here, nor even much color on the exterior. But inside there is a celebration of daylight and shifting tones as the hours and seasons pass—and, for visitors seated along the glass, a pleasing sense of floating above the street.

Walker Library is a model of civic and educational design for the digital age. And yet most library patrons will probably never notice why. Like a comfortable chair, the 30,000-square-foot building works so well that you sink right into it.

Though crisply modern, the Walker branch reflects a thorough understanding of its historic urban context. The beauty lies in the details, as it does with all of VJAA’s civic designs. “Some of the irregularities of the context really changed the design and made it interesting,” explains Vincent James, FAIA, sitting in a brightly colored chair overlooking the intersection of Hennepin and Lagoon. “For example, there is a drop-off in topography on this corner that creates a sense of elevation for the library’s reading area.”

Jennifer Yoos, FAIA, notes that many people assumed that the main entry should be on the lower corner, across the street from the iconic theater. But that corner, heavily trafficked with turning buses and cars, posed major noise and accessibility issues. So VJAA placed the entry along the northeast corner of the building, closer to the Uptown transit station on Hennepin and across the street from the original Neoclassical Walker Library. They also angled the east side of the library slightly in toward Lagoon, to provide more pedestrian space at the busy intersection, while inflecting the upper volume outward toward the theater marquee.

Hennepin County Library’s Lois Lenroot-Ernt explains that today’s libraries are really community hubs. The Walker branch is designed so that all public areas—book stacks, media, computer stations, reading tables, teens’ and children’s spaces—can be easily overseen by staff. Everything is on one airy floor, with the roof’s exposed clear-span truss system accentuating the lofty ceiling height. Working with VJAA, interior design firm Barnhouse Office selected colorful furnishings and regionally sourced walnut finishes. Even the bathrooms are bright.

On sunny days, visiting Walker Library is a bit like standing in a farm field in June. Just below the acoustic ceiling on the north, east, and south walls, a blue band of sound-insulating panels evokes the summer sky. You can look over the low rows of shelves and out through the windows. Overhead, yellow-tinted daylight streams in from six chimney-like light monitors. Outside, the monitors rise from the roofline to echo the syncopation of parapets along Hennepin Avenue.

James notes that many of Hennepin’s old retail buildings have an upper level or levels of masonry over a glassy storefront on the street. Walker Library presents a similar kind of massing: Atop the glass curtain wall, a kind of oversized frieze of faceted metal panels adds visual weight and texture. The stainless steel material is actually a roofing system that VJAA adapted as a cost-effective treatment for the exterior walls.

As patrons become more familiar with this facility’s inventive, flexible, and cheerful design, it will become one of the most important public spaces in Uptown—an area that currently has few. In the same way that the original Walker Library looms in the minds of older generations of Minneapolitans, the new Walker’s bright interior will define what a library is for the children who grow up here.

Even as libraries go digital, we still need such community centers where people of all ages come together to read, learn, and play. Walker Library is an architectural expression of civic life—and a vivid reminder of just how much of it we miss when we spend our days in private spaces staring at a screen.

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Client: Hennepin County
Architect: VJAA
Principals: Vincent James, FAIA; Jennifer Yoos, FAIA; Nathan Knutson, AIA (managing principal)
Project team: Paul Yaggie, AIA; Eric West, AIA; Nate Steuerwald, Assoc. AIA; Emma Huckett
Interior designer: Barnhouse Office
General contractor: Shaw-Lundquist Associates
Size: 30,000 square feet
Cost: $8.45 million
Completion: April 2014
Photographer: Paul Crosby