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BPL Leadership Tells Landmarks Commissioners its Johnson Building’s Protected Design Stands in the Way of Delivering 21st-Century Library Services

2013 July 1
by marleen

Section of Central Library’s Johnson building encased by granite plinths

The BPL campaign to dramatically revamp Copley Library’s evil twin, otherwise known as the Johnson building,  gathered significant steam last Tuesday when the Library’s executives, trustees and hired architects pleaded with the Boston Landmarks Commission to not have the building’s landmark designation stand in the way of critically needed changes. The cavernous 1972 addition to the beloved and mostly restored McKim Building of the Central Library in Copley Square has long been criticized for its unwelcoming, gloomy and hard-to-navigate space. The BPL recently requested public comments about the building; hundreds were received, mostly negative, some scathing, others thoughtful and expressing hope for a better library.

That hope may be rewarded or quashed by the 17-member Boston Landmarks Commission in whose hands rests the landmark status of the four areas of the Johnson building targeted for change. They include most of the 97 vertical plinths strapped around the site  like a granite chastity belt; the Boylston Street lobby, visually maimed by both Soviet-style security apparatus and walls that prevent easy interior access to the McKim building; Deferrari Hall, located in the center where a lonely BPL reference desk librarian holds sway; as well as the entire Central Library block –including its landscaping, now squeezed between the plinths and the building– where the one-million-square-foot structure designed by acclaimed late-modernist architect Philip Johnson is located on Boylston Street at Exeter.

“The Johnson building never worked,” BPL president Amy Ryan told the Landmark commissioners. “It doesn’t engage the

Word poster produced by the BPL based on public comment on Johnson building

visitor, it is not connected to the streetscape, it needs to improve navigation and create a space that is inviting. It should make itself into a true destination for people from Boston, the state and all over the world. There aren’t enough restrooms, there’s a lack of connection between the buildings, the lobby isn’t good. For a city of the this stature, we can do better. This is the moment to make the Boston library the best in the world.”

William Rawn Associates, the architects working with the BPL to breathe new life into the Central Library,  hopes to get approval for proposed changes that, while early in the design process, have already been received enthusiastically by the BPL which has held a handful of public meetings on the subject since late last year.  The renovations include taking down the granite plinths on Boylston and Exeter streets –leaving the ones on Blagden Street– so as to visually reconnect the interior of the library  to the exterior life on the streets; replacing the Boylston-Street  mullioned single-pane windows of the so-called Boston Room with high-performing clear glass without mullions; and removing the lobby’s interior walls to open up the space for, among other improvements, easy access to the McKim building and newly designed book-browsing and exhibit areas. Initial digital designs of the reconfigured street-level space showed a bustling area transformed by clear signage, warm-colored materials, numerous informational meeting points and even a wavey ceiling.

Both the chairman of the Library Board, attorney Jeff Rudman, and trustee Rep. Byron Rushing, who as a South End legislator represents the largest Victorian landmark district in the country, made the case to the Landmark commissioners that the Library’s mission, “Free to All,” is undermined by the current design of the Johnson building. “There are two landmarks before you,”  Rudman told the commissioners. “One is the Johnson building; the other is the tradition of a democratic education as envisioned by the founders of the library. The Johnson building in its current state does not fulfill the intent of the library’s founders. It’s not welcoming. It says, ‘stay back.’” Rudman, who several years ago spearheaded Mayor Thomas Menino’s unfortunate’s efforts to close up to a third of the BPL’s branches, eloquently completed last Tuesday’s testimony by pointing out that in today’s era of growing economic inequality, the library can be the ‘first responder.’ “I am asking you to join with us to fight inequality. It can’t be done if you won’t come in. Preserving the tradition of self-education is more important than plinths,” he suggested to the commissioners.

Word poster produced by the BPL

For their part, the Landmark commissioners listened respectfully but expressed concerns about design elements that mattered ‘should not be thrown away.’ “Buildings are landmarked for a reason,” one commissioner pointed out, adding that the plinths, for example, matched design elements of the McKim building. But Boston Architectural College president, Ted Landsmark, testified in response that a number of Philip Johnson’s iconic buildings were subsequently modified for ‘utilitarian and esthetic reasons,’ including the Elmer Holms Bobst library at New York University. Commissioners also focused on the future of libraries in general, to which BPL president Ryan responded  that both digitization and foot traffic had vastly increased in libraries everywhere. Replacing mullioned glass windows with glass walls that has no mullions brought some questions, and having functional and  programmatic unity for the different elements of the proposed uses of space  inside the library was another issue.

The Johnson Building Improvement Project has thus far benefited from full-throated political and budgetary supported by outgoing Mayor Menino. Also in play is the deep public-library expertise of the architectural firm of William Rawn  (Cambridge Public Library, Mattapan, East Boston, and even the New York Public Library in the 1980s) as well as an engaged and well-connected eight-member Community Advisory Committee of downtown residents established under the BPL’s strategic plan.

An important and controversial aspect of the project involves unresolved details surrounding the commercialization of some of the street-level publicly owned space in the Johnson building on Exeter and Boylston Streets. Lower-level areas around the Rabb Lecture Hall are also seen as possibilities for functions that could generate income for the BPL. So far, the word has been that any commercialization has to be “mission compatible” with the library’s. The Children’s Library, currently located at street level target for commercialization, will be more than doubled in size and move to the light-flooded second floor, with its own elevator access. An up-to-date teen space would be moved to that level, as well.

The BPL’s application for approval to landmarked spaces will take up to five months. Regular updates will be available on both the BPL and  the FOSEL web sites. Previous FOSEL coverage includes these links, one and two. The illustrated word posters were created by the BPL based on the many public comments received about the Johnson building. 

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3 Responses Post a comment
  1. Ann Lloyd permalink
    July 1, 2013

    This is a great report, Marleen, thanks so much for attending these meetings and keeping us informed of this vitally important issue. Terrific writing as well — loved the “granite chastity belt”!

  2. Will permalink
    July 3, 2013

    This is an interesting report that would attract more thoughful consideration if it avoided the nasty rhetoric of its opening paragraphs. Evil twin. Granite chastity belt. Etc.

    I note that the security in the Boylston St. lobby owes nothing to Johnson and there’s nothing “Soviet-style” about it. It’s pure 21st-century USA at its worst. And the beloved McKim building has its own naviagtion issues.

    There’s much improvement possible, but civil discussion will invite more thoughtful contributions. Amy Rand’s comments do this well. Let’s keep the focus on design and usability.

    With the exception of the plinths, which I’d like to see removed on all 3 sides of the Johnson building, I expect there are design solutions to the flow, access, and openness issues that would preserve more of the Johnson design. But that discussion would start with respect for the Johnson building in the first place.

  3. marleen permalink
    July 3, 2013

    Will, thanks for contributing to the thoughtful and civil discussion you feared would not happen. When visiting any of the downtown libraries in other cities comparable to Boston, it’s easy to get hot under the collar over the decades-long tolerance for the unwelcoming shabbiness of the flagship of the BPL at Copley Square. Look at San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Salt Lake City, or Cambridge, to name a few. Philip Johnson himself acknowledged the Johnson lobby never quite worked, for a variety of reasons. This was exacerbated by years of indifference and neglect of the Johnson building as part of an iconic institution, namely the first free public library in the country. What I appreciate so much about the current process, apart from the passionate input by the eight-member Community Advisory Committee, is the spirit of respect and admiration in which Rawn Associates has taken on reviving the best in the Johnson building design, while simultaneously proposing to transform its current shortcomings, well described in hundreds of negative public comments recently, into the welcoming, exciting, spirit-lifing library space Boston deserves. Thus, reconsidering the outside plinths, as well as the interior walls that now minimize the impact of space and light rather than celebrate it, will pay homage to Johnson’s architectural vision, among which is the search for a seamless connection between exterior and interior space: somewhere in the voluminous records Johnson left, he referred to the outside as “wallpaper” for the inside, for example, an idea which resonates current proposals to connect the library to the street’s life around it. All of which to say, I do respect the Johnson building, mourn its decades of neglect and abuse, and can’t wait for the moment when the best of the Johnson building will be revealed and, finally, appreciated.

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