Libraries & Iconic Architecture: Build It, and They Will Come?

Image by Arch Nexus

“Build it and they will come” said they. Many iconic buildings have been built throughout time and in our present era of human progress. Many people have come to visit these timeless buildings in their majesty as symbols of great cultures and great cities. However, there is a difference between simply designing an iconic building and designing something timeless. The difference is the design’s connection to people, place, and culture.

Iconic architecture built devoid of a true connection to people, place, and culture may withstand time as a great structure, as an object placed in time, and may even continue to draw people to it as a tourist but it’s usefulness and function have long since been lost and instead of a vibrant part of an ongoing culture they fall lost to the activity and experience they once created.

Take for example the Roman Colosseum. A magnificent piece of architecture for its time but has now been relegated to a tourist attraction where on the other hand the Sistine Chapel, also a tourist attraction, still to this day provides people who visit with a similar experience for which the space was intended, to worship God. To come closer to Him, to better understand God’s existence and the creation as depicted by the hand of the great painter and architect Michelangelo.

One could argue that it was a different time, a different culture and that culture’s and empires change. However, the common denominator that connects all societies and cultures is people. The gathering of people for a specific type of experience crosses boundaries of time, space, and culture.

Imagine the Roman Colosseum filled with people cheering on a their favorite soccer team and how much more powerful this icon would be today.

Libraries are one of the last true symbols of true democracy where access to all is truly given for everyone to learn, to reach, and to grow. As a result they have become one of few building types that still carry a strong civic presence in our cities and neighborhoods.

The Seattle Central Library is an example of iconic library architecture that people either love or hate. Regardless of your personal opinion this iconic library has become a part of the culture of Seattle, to both resident and visitor alike. While it’s modern form is unique and different it was figuratively built on the foundation of a community coming together.

The great cultural icons are always built on the foundation of a community coming together. Those that focus on just the building as an icon will fail to be timeless in a society where transparency and connectivity are so prevalent. The Seattle Central Library was the result of community and creating a unique experience that was connected directly to them that also attracts those from the outside to participate.

I have had the great privilege of collaborating with Deborah Jacobs on the design of libraries. She was the library director who worked diligently with the Mayor to make something great happen for Seattle, their city. Their “Libraries for All” campaign brought the community together in a unique way that provided the necessary input to give the selected architect the inspiration upon which to create something unique to their community.

“We talked to people and we listened to them and then we changed the plan according to what they said. ‘Libraries for All’ wasn’t just a cute phrase. It was the truth. People who love their libraries made it happen.” (Deborah L. Jacobs:

“The building is never entirely the same and yet still consistent. It intermingles rigid and predictable spaces with the unpredictable.” (Rem Koolhaas, Architect: :

The creation of an icon grew out of the years of community input and vision. They didn’t let their vision and community input go and to have an architect design an icon. They selected an architect with whom they could share their vision and created a process where the community could be a part of incorporating that vision. The community didn’t design it but they inspired the architect who used their inspiration to design it. Great architects look for inspiration from the place, people, and cultures for which they design and allow great architecture to grow out of their uniqueness.

For years I have worked with and learned from the people who have created the right environments for such great architectural icons to occur, both those who were owners and designers of culturally iconic architecture. I have competed against such designers many times for great projects and have won some and lost some but every time, win or lose, I learn more and refine more for the next opportunity to share what I have learned with others and implement a process that creates an awe inspiring experience.

I have learned in my collaboration and competition with designers of such cultural icons that each project is unique and has undiscovered inspiration that can be tapped into from the people, place and culture. For example time I collaborated with BIG and was able to work directly with Bjarke Ingles and share a public stage with him. I am still humbled at how gracious he was to share and mentor so much in the process with our team. The towering icon designed for the Kimball Art Center in Park City was designed to relate directly to the old historic silver mine building that came out through public engagement and discussion. It tied directly to people, place, and culture. I only share this to qualify my statements to be based on experience and not simply opinion.

I have learned the in’s and outs of the community engagement, fund raising, politics, and how to design inspiring iconic architecture. Such opportunities presented themselves early in my career as I worked on award winning projects such as a Machado & Silvetti museum, a PMA Visual Arts Center, and two performing arts centers with Gould Evans. Yet ever earlier, dating back to when I was still a student of architecture I was able to watch in person the development of the design of the Salt Lake City Library.

I remember attending the public interviews in person after having followed their development. I still remember the presentation given by Will Bruder, the dramatic vision painted in our minds of a grandfather and grandchild experiencing the library and how it was connected to the community and the activity of the city. Unfortunately this great design was not realized.

The current Salt Lake City library is a great icon for the city but sits as an island unto itself, connected only timidly to it’s surroundings. I love the design of this building but will always know that there was a better, more iconic design that would have transformed the connections to the community in an epic gesture that related directly to the people, place and culture. While the chosen design presented publicly the inspiration of a foreign icon, the great wall of China and the concept of the urban room repeated from the design of the Vancouver library which mimicked the Roman Colosseum.

To take a foreign object that is unique and simply set it on a piece of land does not constitute a true and timeless design nor does it create lasting culture for great cities.

Great cities are made by their cultural amenities. Mayors and City Council’s everywhere are facing similar questions of how to continue and/or create cultural experiences for residents and visitors alike. The City of Sacramento is doing it through the Golden1 Center and surrounding development on one end of the their cultural corridor and with the transformation project including a complete transformation of their theater, historic auditorium and convention center along with a dynamic and colorful renovation to the first floor of the main library. However, budgets are not like they were prior to the Great Recession. Finding additional funds, passing bonds, and philanthropy does not come as easy as it once did but the resolve of people to create greatness for their communities remains. These kinds of cultural projects take resolve and time, most defiantly years and often decades to plan, fund, and build. Many know Frank Gehry’s Bilbao museum as his first iconic building but little do they know that Los Angeles’ Disney Concert Hall was designed first but it took decades to realize.

Boise is another city who has been embarking on something great for decades. Their Civic Center for Education and Culture includes a new main library, the arts and history department including a gallery and educational components along with a performing arts venue. It has taken decades to get where they are and they moving forward to build on the momentum that this great city has to build something great. What will they decide to do? Will they do something that connects to their people, their place, and their culture, something that is an amazing wow experience or will they place an objectified icon devoid of authentic connections to who they really are. Will they build on the decades of planning and community stakeholder input? I am sure they will, and create something iconic that bridges time.

A chronic problem that I have seen again and again is that a city’s eyes see something bigger than their wallet and delay in hopes of obtaining more funding only to see escalation eat up the building ability of the funds they already have.

My experience has also taught me that there are many ways to create an iconic building without breaking the bank. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright known early on for his homes and later for his cultural icons like New York’s Gugenheim Museum was a master at finding ways to create great designs even when there was a tight budget. Whether it is a branch library at the heart of a neighborhood or a new downtown main library or performing arts center it involves creative thinking, pulling the problem at hand apart and reassembling it in a unique way. It often means changing or making exceptions to existing guidelines or ordinances to accomplish something unique. It usually means sacrificing something good to get something great. It means knowing where to spend the money whether it be on the form, facade, space, or entrance procession. Even something as simple as a new entrance can transform an existing library into an iconic connectivity to the community.

Where there is a will there is a way, but will power alone will not get you there. In today’s transparent and technologically social society you need an involved community, you need to strongly connect your building to the people who are already there, the uniqueness of the place, and the experience of the growing culture. It takes a strong vision and a team of strong designers to realize such a vision.

You can not simply build it and expect people to come and experience the uniqueness of the place that is yours. When design is not integrally woven into the existing culture it fails the test of time. Design must provide a way for that culture to build upon the greatness already accomplished. It must release the untapped potential of a community, your community . . . and then “they will come.” Generation after generation will come as it stands the test of time.

Call to action: Whether you are a resident or a leader of a community there are steps you can take to build libraries as cultural icons in your community. Download “How to Build a Library Checklist” and “10 Steps to Building a Cultural Icon”