Case Studies

Steven Holl Architects

After a ‘small eternity,’ Hunters Point Community Library is now a reality

In the fall of 2016, the architecture firm, Steven Holl Architects, finished the exterior structure for an indescribable new library in Queens, New York.

Located on the western edge of Long Island City, the library is right across from the United Nations Headquarters on the East River, and is unlike anything else on the waterfront.

The exterior structure is a giant rectangular box just over 81 feet tall. The windows are large, elongated shapes carved out of the east and west side of the building and point towards the Manhattan skyline across the river. One of these cutouts specifically zigzags up the building to follow the path of an interior stair.

Steven Holl Architects

“This building was designed to be a beacon,” says Olaf Schmidt, associate in charge of the Hunters Point Community Library and senior associate at Steven Holl Architects.

As a finishing touch, the library will be painted silver to give the building what Schmidt calls a “slight sheen or spark.”
Steven Holl Architects and general contractor, T.B. Penick and Sons, Inc., broke ground on the project in April 2015, and, according to the New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC), the department responsible for hiring architects and builders for city projects, the Hunters Point Community Library is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2017.

The long path to a library

The Hunters Point Community Library is a project over 20 years in the making.

Before the 1990s, Hunters Point was an industrial neighborhood filled with factories and abandoned warehouses. In the last 20 years, developers have been flocking to the area, turning the industrial land into development sites, mostly for residential high rises.

In the late 1990s, as the neighborhood filled with families and new residents, the local government of Queens began pushing for a library to be built. But, due in part to issues with funding (or lack thereof), the project wasn’t approved until the summer of 2010.

That same year, Steven Holl Architects was selected for the DDC’s Design and Construction Excellence program, which highlights firms for innovative design and put Steve Holl Architects on the short list of firms to work on city projects.

However, when the architecture firm, also located in New York City, began designing the library it ran into a few challenges.

The land allotted for the project was small. In fact, the building is only 22,000-square-feet. The project is also surrounded by apartment buildings over 40-stories high, and that led to concerns that a traditional library structure, which is normally only 20 to 30 feet tall, would be “crushed” by its larger neighbors and be invisible from across the river, says Schmidt.

After more than 20 different design schemes, and what felt like a “small eternity,” says Schmidt, Steven Holl Architects landed on the silver concrete rectangular box design because “stacking it vertically was a way to get more of a visual impact and be more of a statement within this small area that we ultimately had to supply,” says Schmidt.

‘A dynamic experience’

For the interior, the firm designed a multi-story atrium with floor plates that jut into the open space at different lengths. Schmidt says as visitors look up they’ll see the floor’s bamboo clad undersides contrasting polished concrete floors.

“It is a very dynamic experience…and is very unlike what you’d typically see in a stacked library with regular pancaked floors,” he says.

The two levels on the north side of the building will be reserved for the adult reading section, and two floors across the library will be for the children’s area. The young adult section will occupy one of the top floors. Above that, a cafe and rooftop terrace will overlook the Manhattan skyline.

Schmidt says the firm knew the Hunters Point Community Library would require a great deal of coordination, “but that’s not so unusual for our work,” because Steven Holl Architects specializes in work for universities and museums.

At the same time the library was designed, the firm was busy working on an extension for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., designing the Glassell School of Art and new museum building for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and finishing the University of Iowa Visual Arts Building.

The firm has completed projects across Europe and Asia, however, the Hunters Point Community Library is a particular accomplishment for the firm, says Schmidt.

“For this project, [we] had years of struggles, with so many drawings and fundraising issues. So when it starts going up and we are finally able to go inside the space and experience what we have been laboring over it is very gratifying.”

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