Temple University has spent a billion dollars over the last decade transforming itself from a commuter college into a residential school that can draw students nationally. It's added glassy classroom buildings, a ritzy skyscraper dorm, and amenities such as cafés and rock-climbing walls. Yet, for all the flash, it was never clear how the expensive parts were supposed to fit together.
With the completion of a new master plan last year and the hiring of a university architect in 2011, Temple seems to have finally found its compass. The school ditched a problematic plan to build a new library on Broad Street and moved the project to the university's natural core, near its iconic bell tower.
It turned out to be an a-ha! moment.
Instead of just adding another isolated architectural trophy, Temple is using the $190 million library project to launch a long-overdue, place-making effort. Temple will clear several obsolete buildings from the center of campus to make way for a large grassy quadrangle. The library, which parallels Liacouras Walk, will anchor the west side of that new landscape.
It will be a classic college ensemble, a stone library overlooking a green lawn, and it promises to transform Temple as we know it from an ad hoc collection of urban buildings, into a more traditional and cohesive campus environment. Penn created a central green decades ago. Now, it's Temple turn.
Such a paradigm-shifting project requires a transformative work of architecture, and, happily, the design by Snohetta rises to the occasion. Along with subpar planning, Temple has a long record of subpar architecture. If the library gets built according to the current plan, it will dramatically raise the standard for design at Temple. Snohetta is partnering with the Philadelphia firm Stantec to build the library.
Snohetta, an internationally acclaimed firm with offices in New York and Oslo, has a talent for producing exciting buildings that are just right for their context. The firm got its start when it won a competition for a modern library in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1989. The magic of the design was that it managed to hark back to the city's ancient library, even while providing a contemporary environment that allowed people of diverse faiths to come together in a welcoming, neutral setting.
Since then, the firm has gone on to build a dozen more libraries, all informed by the same deeply humanist sensibility. Much like the Alexandria project, the Temple design blends innovation and tradition. The heart of the building will contain a robot-controlled book-retrieval system, modeled on fulfillment centers used by giant retailers such as Amazon. But the public spaces will be wrapped in materials that evoke the classic Gothic college libraries. The exterior is being clad in a rough-cut granite, a reference to Temple's earliest buildings, such as Mitten Hall, and will be textured like corduroy. Inside, on the ground floor, the dramatic vaulted ceilings will become canopies of warm wood.
Because the library site, between Pollett Walk and Norris Street, is a full block long, the building could have easily turned into a cliff wall next to the quadrangle, especially because the granite cladding will be a dark gray.
Snohetta avoided that fate by breaking up the granite expanses with windows and voids. At ground level, they've scooped out two dramatic arches, one facing the green, the other pointed toward Liacouras and Pollett Walks, to serve as the building's main entrances. With their deep overhangs, the broad openings resemble caves carved into the rock face. Their generous size means it will be possible to see straight through the building, from the walks to the new quad.
Although no one would ever confuse these wide, almost flattened, semicircular structures with a neoclassical building, they are descendant from a traditional form. Their exaggerated shapes are more like something Frank Furness would do on a Victorian building. Snohetta gives the arches its own Scandinavian-modern flair by paneling the undersides in wood.
Snohetta also sees its buildings as a kind of topography, growing out of the landscape. The Temple library will visually ramp up from the quad, rising four levels in a series of subtle switchbacks, culminating with a green roof. At the top, a glass box will peep out of the granite, like a flipped-open headlamp. It will house a 2,000-seat reading room, offering spectacular views of the campus. Snohetta sneaked in a terrace on the ramp for good measure.
The library will be the most expensive building that Temple has undertaken. It may seem odd to build such a lavish building now, when students have digital libraries at the touch of a laptop, but there is a growing belief that libraries have a social and cultural role.
Joe Lucia, Temple's dean of libraries, believes these buildings are the most inclusive spaces at a university and serve as an "academic Switzerland." An engineering student may never wander into the humanities building, he explained, but all students need to consult a library's holdings. The library's location on the new central quad will cement its place as Temple's community center. Besides the glass reading room, the building will be packed with study rooms, seminar rooms, digital work spaces, as well as a ground floor café-and-study area that will be open 24 hours.
The wealth of work spaces is made possible by the automated book-retrieval system. The new library will be about 200,000 square feet, roughly the same as the existing Paley Library, built in 1966 by Nolen-Swinburne. (It will probably be retrofitted for classrooms.) But because the automated system allows the new library to store books in tightly packed trays, storage will take up just 10,000 square feet. The ratio is almost the reverse at Paley, which has open stacks. Because the books will be protected in their own concrete room, the new library can have many more windows. It is sad that the one place where windows are scarce is on the side facing Liacouras walk. Long blank walls could be off-putting on such a pedestrian stretch, and Temple officials say they are exploring some design changes.
One of the good things about the automatic book-retrieving system is that it's already been tested at Snohetta projects such as the Hunt Library at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. The system delivers the books within five minutes, and it's become such an attraction that students are known to take selfies with the robot.
The Snohetta library is expected to break ground later this year and open in 2018. The quadrangle, however, has yet to be designed. In a world that becomes more virtual every day, it's nice to know the books and the lawn will be there for us.