Sumit Singhal loves modern architecture. He comes from a family of builders who have built more than 20 projects in the last ten years near Delhi in India. He has recently started writing about the architectural projects that catch his imagination.
CALS Children’s Library in Little Rock, Arkansas by Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects
March 21st, 2015 by Sumit Singhal
Article source: Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects
Referred to as a “community-embedded, supportive learning center,” this library offers not only books, but also a performance space, a teaching kitchen, a greenhouse and vegetable garden, and an arboretum.
The Director of the Library System’s challenge was to create a playground without equipment, where nature and imagination combine to create grand adventures on a six acre natural site in the heart of the capital city.
A charette held with children uncovered a surprising result: their top desire wasn’t for the latest video games… they were concerned about food security – they wanted to learn how to feed themselves. Children also wanted a place that was uplifting, inspirational, and full of natural light, while feeling safe and secure. They wanted a place that “lifted expectations”.
The site became an education experience, emphasizing teaching hands-on skills, such as gardening and food preparation. The architecture’s inspiration is based on the childhood memories of many Arkansans, growing up in rural areas where playgrounds were really fields, creeks, utilitarian structures such as barns, sheds, and the constructed forts built by their own hands – something inner-city kids rarely experience; children created their own adventures… The library acts as a large shed in the woods: its roof lifts to the sky as the site falls, sheltering spaces within while visually opening to the site’s restored ecosystem. The architecture speaks of sustainability (seeking LEED Gold) and the technical nature of construction, expressing all connections and systems, much like a child’s erector set. The building is a teacher.
Land As Teacher
The six acre site was cut off by the interstate 40 years ago. As the houses disappeared, nature took over. Our design protects the ecosystem for education purposes, and new vegetation represents the State of Arkansas accurately from the highlands to the delta, following the flow of water. The Library’s parallelogram shape was influenced by the site grades.
An existing craftsman home was refurbished for staff to live in the neighborhood.
The constructed wetland that surrounds the west and north sides of the building captures runoff from the adjacent interstate and property to the north, and creates a security barrier that limits access to the building. Water falls into three pools controlled by weirs to keep all water on site, shifting to meet the grades. The water is no more than 6” deep at any point.
Most of the site is directly visible from the library as well.
The west façade’s 15’ overhang “porch” and fritted glazing minimize heat load while maximizing light and views. The roof directs water to large scuppers, where it flows as a waterfall to spillways, feeding the wetland.
A Window on the World
The six acre site sits adjacent to the interstate that bisects the city…and divided its citizens 40 years ago. This library and its site acts as a cultural and racial bridge, reuniting the children of this metropolitan city.
The upper library is lifted to the interstate level, allowing kids to watch the traffic zoom through the trees. Just as importantly, the traffic can see the entire floor of the library, opening to the north.
By contrast, at the ground level the movement of rustling water supersedes the interstate noise, and kids feel like they are in the middle of the woods, exploring creeks, paths, and allowing their imaginations to create grand adventures. The building’s base reaches out and touches the water with reading steps, stating it is okay to get your toes wet, play on the grounds, and be a kid.
Texture, color, and scale
Building materials and forms emulate the textures/patterns of rural structures, something inner city children rarely experience. The shed’s rise matches the grade’s fall.
A good neighbor
The scale of the building facing the neighborhood is concealed through a series of stepped planes, vertical and horizontal. Unlike most buildings that play up the main elevation, this library’s entrance facade is purposely subdued with a smaller entrance slipping through a long stone wall, symbolizing protection and creating a sense of intrigue as to what is coming next. The main focus is on the kid’s areas beyond the wall…
Instead of building signage recognizing a person, the building’s main use is expressed in a simple, colorful gesture: the giant letters “read”. The letters were made to be climbed on, and have become a favorite photo opportunity for families.
A Shed in the Woods
The library’s entrance is compressed below barn-like wood slats, and serves as a queuing area for large groups. Hands-on displays are planned to attract children’s interest in this area, from building operation and weather monitors to physical science exhibits.
In the great reading room, the roof lifts to the north in response to the idea of “lifting expectations”, creating one large loft-like space in the trees: A shed in the woods. Much like a barn, the space is a physical, flexible container where the objects can be rearranged as needed.
The lower level teaching kitchen address the top need desired by the children surveyed: “Teach us how to feed ourselves”. Food raised by the kids in the teaching garden and greenhouse is either prepared in cooking classes or sold on Market Day, teaching valuable life skills.
An active gel floor greets anyone coming down the stair or elevator.
Lofts and Tree Houses
The interstitial space where the upper floor square library plan and the broader building parallelogram overlap becomes a visual and physical connector to the education programs below and the broader landscape beyond. Both open stairs physically extend outside the building envelope proper, giving patrons the feeling of being out in the site.
A floating perforated, corrugated ceiling plane offers acoustical value and brings the scale down in the smaller children’s area, while marking the overall planning’s shift to meet the site grading.
Fritted glazing blocks 40% of heat and light while offering unobstructed views.
The entire upper library becomes a loft-like space, with tree house study rooms cantilevered above, floating in balance over the education spaces below.
Every building system is exposed and celebrated to express the technical nature of construction: the building is a teacher. Much like a child’s erector set, the building stimulates interest in engineering and construction, which will be explored further in the planned digital and robotics labs to come.
The Reading Steps
The reading steps serve as a monumental stair, hang out space, movie theater, and an auditorium without seats. Kids take part in all aspects of the performing arts: designing and building sets, writing plays, acting, and costume design. Beneath the steps are dressing rooms and a stage shop. The stage bleeds into nature; the backdrop is the wetland. Because the space faces north and east, performances and movies occur without closing the shades. The space hosts symphony quartets, story time, lectures, magicians, plays, and singers. Violinist Midori Goto performed in the space as well. It is a space for community.
A new Children’s Library and Learning Center is based on experiential learning, where children are educated through hands on activities that teach life skills needed to become responsible adults.
This Children’s Library needs to be monumental to the neighborhood, but not monumental to the children that use it; to them, it should simply be “The Place to Be.”
~ Dr. Bobby Roberts, CALS
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