Strategically positioned on the bank of the East River, across the water from the United Nations headquarters, New York city has a shimmering new addition to its skylines.
Unusually for such prime real estate set among parkland, panoramic views of Manhattan and convenient transport links, this $40mn development in Queens is neither an upscale apartment block, exclusive members club or the offices of a huge corporation.
In fact, it is the site of the city’s newest public library.
Built from aluminium-painted exposed concrete that sparkles in the light and featuring two huge freeform cutouts for windows, Hunters Point library, which opened recently on the Long Island City waterfront, is designed to be noticed from afar.
As well as more than 50,000 books, including Spanish and Chinese collections, and a “cyber centre” with computers, highlights include designer furniture by Eames and Jean Prouvé, an art installation by Julianne Swartz, an event space, a children’s area and a “quiet room”.
There is also a rooftop with tiered seating, an environmental education centre and a dedicated floor for teenagers with a video gaming area. The preliminary event schedule for adults includes trivia night, book, crocheting and writing clubs.
“It’s a beacon for the city,” said Dennis Walcott, president and CEO of Queens Public library. “Its location is just ideal both for the borough of Queens but as well as for New York City overall … Being located between two ferries gives the opportunity for people to come over, visit and relax and surrounded by parkland as well. So it’s a beautiful place for what libraries are about in today’s society.”
The opening of Hunters Point — the early design of which was reached by Steven Holl Architects in 2010, with construction starting in 2015 — is being seen as a positive sign for the health of New York libraries, and has been largely welcomed by the community despite some criticism over its price tag.
It has become the 217th in New York, where libraries attract a total of 37.7 million people per year. In Queens, one of America’s largest public library services, Walcott says none of the borough’s residents lives more than approximately one mile away from a library.
But in the age of Donald Trump, whose administration has proposed budget cuts that would close the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the government agency that gives grants to libraries and museums, the high-profile opening is a political statement, too.
While most library funding comes from local sources, American Libraries Association (ALA) spokesperson Shawnda Hines said federal money is still “vital” for their survival. “For three years in a row, the Trump administration has threatened to eliminate IMLS altogether,” she said.
“Obviously libraries are more important than ever under Donald Trump, who is assaulting our sense of decency and who has sought to dismantle the civic space and stability as we knew it,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, local council member and chairman of New York City Council’s cultural affairs and libraries committee.
He said Americans should respond to Trump by improving their libraries and other spaces where “people can come together, talk, meet and actually defend their democracy and their neighbourhoods”.
Despite increased internet access and growing distractions, libraries have proven remarkably resilient in the US, adapting their services to the changing needs of communities. Next year, libraries are expected to play a central role in the US census when, for the first time ever, it will be available online.
According to the latest Public Libraries Survey report, published by the IMLS in May, although library funding across the US improved in the three years leading up to 2016, it remained below pre-recession levels.
Meanwhile, visits remain relatively high. In 2016, there were 1.35bn visits to public libraries. This compares to 1.39bn the previous year.
It’s in stark contrast to Britain, where last year nearly 130 public libraries closed.
“No-one would have predicted 30 years ago that of all the public institutions we have, the library would be the most adept at transforming to meet needs of contemporary citizens. But it has,” said Eric Klinenberg, director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University and author of Palaces for the People.
Hunters Point, he said, is a reminder of the potential of public architecture. “We don’t need to depend on tech firms and star architects to have beautiful buildings.”
Citing Oodi, in Helsinki, Finland, the current star of the library world, Central library in Calgary, Canada, and, in the US, Austin Central library in Texas and the library systems in Columbus, Ohio, Seattle and Chicago, he said “there are a lot of great libraries”, but that America could still do better.
“The American public library system is truly special by international standards. But that’s only because we’ve inherited a tremendous gift from the generations that have come before us and for the most part what we’ve been doing is squandering our inheritance.”
There has been some criticism of the project, however. Slow Build, a 2017 report by Centre for an Urban Future named Hunters Point library as an example of a project that “grew dramatically in scope and cost” after being given the go-ahead.
Last year a petition, signed by over 1,000 people called it “an embarrassment and a prime example of New York City government waste and inefficiency”.
Ian Michaels, a spokesperson for NYC Department of Design and Construction, said: “In January 2019, the city released its comprehensive plan to improve capital project delivery, which will make the system more streamlined and more efficient. Had that plan been in place, the library would have been done much more quickly. Hunters Point library would also be a candidate for Design-Build (a contracting method connecting designers and contractors), which New York City is advocating for strongly in Albany.”
But in Hunters Point, residents were excited about the opening. At a nearby play area, Luciana Santos, 31, who looks after two young children, had already looked at the library’s events schedule.
“It looks great … It took a while to get ready I think, but now everyone’s excited for opening,” she said.
Reading a book nearby with her daughter, Laura Varland, 33, said she currently goes to Court Square library, which is about a mile away, but plans to switch allegiance to Hunters Point when it opens because it’s closer to home.
“It’s a beautiful building,” she said. “It’s an architectural design. It’s taken a while to be built, so we’ve all been watching it with bated breath … and waiting for it to open, so we’re excited that it’s finally opening.” — The Guardian
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