BY BRIAN LIBBY
Over the past decade, Portland’s suburb across the Columbia River, Vancouver, has made impressive strides to establish a vibrant, pedestrian friendly downtown. Public and private projects alike, such as Esther Short Park and a Hilton hotel that was the nation’s first LEED-rated lodging, have helped create a sense of place. So will a capping of Interstate 5 in the downtown area for which the city held a design competition last year. The next piece of the puzzle is the grand opening of the new Vancouver Community Library, set for July 17.
Located on the southeast corner of Evergreen Boulevard and C Street in downtown Vancouver, at the site of the future, privately funded Library Square development, the building is expected to attract a million visitors per year.
Vancouver Community Library was designed by The Miller Hull Partnership of Seattle, for which this kind of public project (especially one designed sustainably) seems an ideal commission. The firm’s project manager, Adin Dunning, is a Vancouver native, and the Miller Hull Partnership is the recipient of the National Firm Award from the American Institute of Architects. The firm has received over 200 design awards and was listed by Architect magazine earlier this year as the #22 architecture firm in America.
Miller Hull’s portfolio includes a slough of award-winning public projects, including sustainable architecture dating back to the early 1980s. More recently, there are projects like the LOTT Clean Water Alliance Regional Services Center, which was included in this year’s AIA Committee on the Environment Top 10 Green Projects list, the striking 1310 Union condominiums the Seattle Center Fisher Pavilion (also a COTE Top 10 honoree in 2003), the Willamette River Water Treatment Plant in Portland, and the Tillamook Forest Center west of the city. Their upcoming design for the Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center, also in Vancouver, is on target for net-zero energy usage, producing more energy than it consumes.
“The essence of their practice and the genius of their work is collaboration,” writes former AIA president Thomas Penney, “which blossoms in a straightforward, elegant architecture that delights the eye and elevates the soul. Enlightened stewards, equally faithful to their profession and the public realm, theirs is a model of best practice where nature is a co-equal giver of form, guiding the art and science of craft in the service of the architect’s ultimate client, the planet earth.”
The Vancouver Library, comprising approximately 83,000 square feet on five levels, will have more than twice the 11,000 square feet of space for books at the current library. The new facility includes numerous children’s spaces, including a 4,000 square-foot early learning center, one of the largest in the country. There are also numerous computer terminals (about 100), three community meeting rooms available for outside group use, classroom and study areas, and an automated book-sorting system and capacity for 385,000 volumes. The new library also will include a used bookstore operated by the Friends of the Library, and small café.
Project cost for the library is approximately $38 million, which includes a $5 million private anonymous donation. Primary funding is from a 2006 library facilities bond measure. “Library Square” developer Killian Pacific donated Land for the library.
The building boasts numerous sustainable methods and materials, culminating in a projected 33 reduction in energy use compared to a building designed to code. A green roof reduces the heat-island effect, while exterior shading on south-facing side reduces heat gain. Interior ﬁnishes are low-VOC for better indoor air quality, while recycled materials such as eco-resin panels are used in interior spaces and on casework as well as a concrete structure incorporating recycled content.
The building is teeming with natural light. Each ﬂoor is open to the atrium in order to take advantage of natural daylight and views. This also capitalizes on natural daylight with north-facing windows and a south facing atrium that provides passive cooling in summer by allowing heat inside the building to rise and be exhausted at the top via the stack effect. The fifth floor features a 4,086 square-foot terrace with views of Vancouver, the river, and Mt. Hood
From the exterior, the building is very handsome, if a little corporate-boxy and monolithic. It also seems to lact a truly intuitive main entrance. Yet the clarity and beauty of its materials and a sense of airy openness help elevate the overall experience. In addition to its palette of glass and concrete, the exterior uses a terra cotta paneling system that echoes the brick of the historic Academy building across Evergreen Boulevard. It’s a much richer, more dignified brown tone of terra-cotta panel than the orange panels used by other recent building projects like the Casey Condominiums in Portland’s Pearl District.
Standing inside the library's massive atrium, one gets not only of a massive, glassy volume of space, but a wonderful cross-sectional sense of the library’s stacks of books, people and activity. This is a compelling gathering place for a burgeoning city with a renewed urban core, one where community is embodied by openness and connection to the outside.
The Portland area has an impressive collection of regional and neibhborhood libraries. The city's Central Library, a stately Georgian landmark from 1913 designed by A.E. Doyle, is perhaps the most well loved and most widely used public facilities in the nation - particularly after a 1997 renovation overseen by Fletcher Farr Ayotte. Central Library and the Woodstock Branch Library, the latter designed by Thomas Hacker's firm, THA Architecture, were both included in a list by the American Library Assocation and the American Institute of Architects of the top 10 libraries in the nation. THA also has designed several other quietly wonderful libraries in the area, such as the Hillsdale Branch Library and the Beaverton City Library.
Vancouver Community Library fits nicely into this tradition. Like THA's work, it has moments of grandness, particularly the view out over the multistory atrium. If it ranks a close second to THA's library in overall poetry of form, Vancouver is those buildings' equal in its sustainability and its open, naturally lit environments. And as with Miller Hull's past portfolio, this feels like a simple, clean-lined work of architecture that was squarely and generously designed with its occupants in mind. And though the coating on the windows can, depending on the time of day, sometimes diminish this effect, the Vancouver Library uses transparency to communicate and reveal a kind of simple social machine, with levels of activity available to see for anyone passing by.