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In Search of Excellence—Designing a New Library

It was a challenge—replacing a 1950s brick library that had seen better days with one that more than doubled its capacity while providing visual ties to its surroundings, a neighborhood at the far end of Queens near the Long Island border. The Glen Oaks community had long been aware that its library, a branch of the Queens public library system, was inadequate; but it took eight years once the project was awarded for the old structure to be razed and replaced with the new one. A ribbon cutting for the new 18,000-square-foot facility finally took place in September, and was clearly an instant hit; as Architectural Record magazine noted, the Glen Oaks Library attracts “a crowd of regulars even before the doors open each morning.”

The building’s forward-reaching design is the work of architect and Barnard Professor of Professional Practice in Architecture Karen Fairbanks, her partner and husband, Scott Marble, and their firm, Marble Fairbanks. Marble teaches architecture at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture; Fairbanks, who joined the Barnard faculty in 1996, eventually became chair of the College’s architecture department, responsible for developing the department’s present curriculum and digital lab. She and her partner were married in 1993, one year after establishing their firm, now based in Brooklyn. Since then, they have developed an impressive client list that includes Hunter College, the City University of New York, the Museum of Modern Art, New York University, Parsons the New School for Design, Pratt Institute, Princeton University, the Architectural League of New York, and Columbia University.

With strong interests in education and sustainability, Fairbanks and the Marble Fairbanks team incorporated these ideas in the Queens library’s design, which expanded the building’s capacity while hewing to code and zoning regulations, which required them to build a large portion of the library underground. “We built below-ground, right up to the property line,” she explains. A series of skylights was created to direct sunlight into the adult library on the lower level. Above that is the teen library, which has walkout access to a landscaped plaza with benches for seating. The upper level is the children’s library.

The glass facade on three sides of the new building not only invites natural light, but also links the library visually to the community without overwhelming its neighbors. On one side, the building aligns with a row of two-story houses along the residential street beyond it. Glass dominates, but the building is not simply a glass box. There are curves as well as corners, and portions of two exterior walls are covered with cement-board panels. The design also includes a vast series of vertical translucent glass panels made of channel glass, which has a greenish blue tint to it. The building’s insulation is integral to the panels, and is actually inserted inside the glass channels, which diffuses the natural light and also reduces the flow of solar heat into the building interior.

Testament to the inventiveness of the design is the seemingly mysterious appearance of the word “SEARCH” in huge capital letters that extend along a glass wall above the library’s main entrance. That word, says Fairbanks, “is a reference to the idea of searching for information,” and she explains how the ghostly letters are never stationary, moving and changing shape and scale over the course of a day. The word appears on a section of clear glass in the north elevation, projected by sunlight coming through the back of the parapet from the south. The letters disappear at night—they can only be seen when the sun is out—and, of course, look different summer and winter.

Building on the search theme, at street level, the architects designed clear glass walls with a ceramic frit pattern on the glass. From a distance, the pattern resembles bound bookends, whereas up close, one sees that the frit pattern has the word “search” translated into each of the 30 different languages spoken in the neighborhood. “What we did is take demographic information from the census,” says Fairbanks. “We wanted to create an interesting graphic that almost resembles books on a shelf from a distance but also contains actual information about how many people speak each language— an interesting way to communicate an idea of the identity of the neighborhood.”

At Barnard, Fairbanks’s title is professor of professional practice, and she believes she was among the first at the College to receive that designation. “It’s a title acknowledging that I have a creative practice outside of academia,” she explains. “That is my work; it’s different from being a tenured faculty member. I’m not tenured; I am not an adjunct. I’m full time. The research I do is different from the kind of work that a traditional academic would be engaged in.”

Fairbanks teaches courses on architecture, technology, and design. “My emphasis is on design studios, where students are assigned actual projects,” she says. “The studio situation has a small number of students—the teacher-student ratio is 1 to 10 or 1 to 16, depending on the what year the student is in—and I also meet with them one on one. They’re basically majoring in architecture but get liberal arts degrees. To be clear, we’re a combined major between Barnard and Columbia. The departments were merged in 1996. I had been teaching at Columbia for eight years prior to that.”

In 2008, the firm completed its design of the Toni Stabile Student Center at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. This structure at the Broadway edge of the campus provides two levels of usable space, part of which was in an exterior space between the Pulitzer building and Furnald Hall. The student center contains a café, a student lounge, interview stations, teaching lab, library, study area, and conference rooms, plus a suite for doctoral-student use. “Installing an enormous movable glass wall in the café part facing the plaza helped to transform the relationship between the journalism school and the campus,” Fairbanks explains. “We [also] cut into the floor at the back of the main social area off the [Pulitzer building] lobby to make a connection to the lower level, and try to connect some of the programs downstairs with the programs upstairs, which was a new social hub.” One of the intentions of that project, she adds, “was trying to find a way for the student center to have its own unique character and space while also improving connections to the Columbia community at large.”

Fairbanks recalls becoming “interested in architecture primarily by taking college courses in art, environmental studies, and urban studies.” After two years at Connecticut College, she transferred to the University of Michigan—Connecticut College didn’t offer an architecture major—received her bachelor of science degree in architecture there in 1981, then earned a master of architecture degree at Columbia, where she was awarded an SOM Travel Fellowship, a William Kinne Fellows Traveling Prize, and the AIA Medal.

In 2004, Marble and Fairbanks were the Charles & Ray Eames lecturers at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. Marble Fairbanks: Bootstrapping, a book of essays, was published on the occasion of their lecture. In 2007, the couple gave a Michael Owen Jones Memorial Lecture at the University of Virginia, their appearance coinciding with a university exhibition that turned a deserved spotlight on their award-winning design for the slide library at Columbia.

Today, Fairbanks not only interacts with students as a full-time instructor, but also serves as an exemplar of how to run a modernday architectural practice and how that practice can enhance a community, a campus, and beyond.

 

 

—Article by Mervyn Kaufman
—Portrait photography by Joshua Simpson; Library photography by Eduard Heuber, Arch Photo, Inc.