PRINT January 2014


Snøhetta’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library

Snøhetta, James B. Hunt Jr. Library, 2013, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC. Photo: Jeff Goldberg.

IN THE AGE OF THE CLOUD and the search engine, the precarious status of the library—its growing obsolescence as a brick-and-mortar repository of information—is already a cliché. Yet the library building seems to have lost none of its status as a cultural icon, with cities and institutions around the globe commissioning them at an impressive rate. Perhaps no architecture is more representative of this paradox than that of Snøhetta, the Norwegian firm that first rose to international prominence in 1989 after winning the high-profile competition to design Egypt’s Library of Alexandria. The building, completed in 2001, exhibits a canny mix of historical references and contemporary flourishes, combining a massive granite wall, which shelters the structure from prevailing desert winds and echoes the region’s ancient architecture, with a glass roof that fills book-lined reading rooms with warm, even light. It is representative of the mix of sensitive contextualism and stylish, modernist-inspired design for which Snøhetta has become famous. But while the Alexandria building looked back to the library’s golden past, one of the firm’s most recent designs, the James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University (NCSU), completed in 2013, catapults the library forward into a brave new digital universe. Here, books themselves are given almost no visible presence, with the bulk of the collection tucked away in a gleaming “bookBot”—based on computerized retrieval systems developed for industrial inventory management—beneath the building. With its interior space thereby liberated, the building offers a smorgasbord of open spaces for group study, research, and play. Like the “collaborative campuses” of Google or Apple, it is meant to be a place where users can draw inspiration from the social spectacle of work itself.

Library buildings have long played a prominent role in American urban and institutional planning; Jefferson’s iconic library at the University of Virginia, for example, marks the imposing termination of a classical axis. The Hunt Library is situated within a similarly traditional master plan, on NCSU’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh: Snøhetta was given a prominent site—at the end of a large park capping the main thoroughfare of the campus—that almost begs for a grand, Jeffersonian gesture. But the architects instead gently rotated their building away from the edge of the green space, disrupting the baroque symmetry of its surroundings and offering a sweeping sense of openness in an otherwise tightly regimented ensemble of classroom buildings and residence halls.

If the building’s relationship to its site is marked by a subtle subversion of classical planning precedents, its geometry itself seems informed by the modernist parti of a polygonal slab. It is also inflected by a symbolic play on the library’s North Carolina context: The form—long, five stories tall, and subtly angled—was inspired in part by the power looms of the state’s once-burgeoning textile industry, a reference linked to the university’s nearby College of Textiles. And the building’s cladding likewise evokes the modernist tradition, even while expanding it. The north and south faces are glass curtain walls with fine Miesian mullions, and the building’s eastern and western flanks are covered by vertical aluminum brise-soleils, recalling Le Corbusier. But these familiar devices are spun into unexpected combinations and effects; as one walks around the building, the interaction of the two systems produces a striking sense of animation.

Corbusian design is again invoked by the grand, electric-yellow staircase that runs diagonally through the building, terminating at the skyline reading room and roof terrace. The stairs draw visitors through a range of study and collaboration spaces: Adjacent to the main lobby, a triple-height reading lounge entices visitors with sexy armchairs and a clubbish mood. On the floors above, users stroll through a “learning commons”—a huge, flexible space furnished with everything from beanbag chairs to a digital blackboard—and past a range of lushly equipped video and music studios, a visualization lab, and a 3-D printing center. At two points, one as it leaves the central reading lounge and another as it climbs from the learning commons to the labs and studios above, the staircase broadens into stadium-style seating furnished with brightly colored cushions, a community-generating gesture that emphasizes the building’s role as an engine of collaboration.

If Snøhetta’s ongoing revitalization of elements of the modernist tradition produces seductive architectural forms and experiences, it also perfumes their buildings with the scent of modernism’s utopian promises, capitalizing on the reflexive association of its aesthetics with radical politics. In the Hunt Library, this nostalgic aura—which harks back to a time when architecture hoped to leverage the advances of industrialization to revolutionize modern life—has been integrated into a design where the ubiquitous deployment of digital technology evokes the possibility of a sustainable, postindustrial future. It is an intoxicating combination, as evidenced by the fact that Snøhetta is increasingly the firm of choice for civic projects on both sides of the Atlantic.

But in the end, such appeals can seem like wishful thinking. The Library of Alexandria was supported by Mubarak’s government and funded in part by Egypt’s Western allies, presenting an appealing vision of enlightened civic identity that, in retrospect, glossed over underlying political realities. The Hunt Library occupies a less volatile milieu, but one in which architecture’s powers of ideological projection are no less in play. After all, the symbolic transformation of an industrial loom into a tech campus is not just a flight of architectural fancy. It reflects the fervent desire of both a state and an institution to establish a competitive edge, appearing not only progressive but also worthy of investor confidence. Even more than an architectural icon, then, the Hunt Library’s patrons want hope: the prospect of a market share in the global knowledge economy. Snøhetta has found a form to follow the dream.

Philip Walsh is a writer and researcher based in central Massachusetts.