Friday, January 28, 2005

You'll Never be Stirred to Greatness Here

Posted by Hello

Yesterday I went to the Harold Washington Library for the first time in a long while and was reminded that the building is like a dunce's paper bag. You can't find your way out of it. Or, into it for that matter.

They shaped the main lobby like a giant cube. Four corridors depart off of it, but not one architectural detail suggests where the hallways lead. Left-over street banners and other paper afterthoughts sag from the walls. In the center of the lobby the architects created a circular opening in the floor that lets you gaze one whole storey below. The main level also houses the "Popular Library." I think this is where you'll find the Danielle Steel novels and the cool high school kids, but I may be wrong about that. Perhaps it's where they put the Starbucks.

The architects hid the unpopular library two escalators up, around a few corners, and through an undistinguished entry-way. Signs with giant letters and arrows shout from the gray walls. They seem to trying to make up for the work the architecture failed to do. Their bland tyepface drains the warmth from the atmosphere that the wood paneling and retro-lamps struggle to provide.

The architects tried to breathe some life into the place by stencilling quotations from Big Thinkers on the walls, but they failed miserably. You'll never be stirred to greatness here. You'll never feel inspired to invent a flying machine or pen a novel based on Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Frankly, you'd be lucky to find the books you want.

The library makes almost no effort to help patrons figure out what floors house which books. When I told a reference librarian that I was having a hard time finding the call number locations for the titles I needed, she laughed and said, "Tell me about it. We should really have those posted somewhere." Then she reached for a thin black binder where she kept the secret information. My six books were located on four different floors.

Even the library's website takes pains to distance itself from the creation:

The architect responsible for the design is Thomas H. Beeby and his colleagues in the firm Hammond, Beeby and Babka. It was their design as a part of the Sebus Group that won a design/build competition in June of 1988.

In other words, we're not responsible. We love libraries. Beeby's the one who hates them.

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