Aging Library Tries To Redefine Itself
It is a somewhat alarming experience to walk into the newly renovated Mendel Gottesman Library on Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus and discover that there are hardly any books to be found. Library-goers entering through the main entrance on the second floor will find only a number of low (and currently empty) bookshelves dotting the corridors, as if to provide a token remembrance of what used to be the sanctuary of the written form. Granted, the function of an academic library has changed radically in recent years. Today’s students use libraries as places to study and interact with one another, as places to write papers and conduct research, as places to meet and socialize. They are no longer places to read books. With the advance of the Internet age, eBooks, Google Books, and the like have made it possible for today’s college students to need only a laptop to connect them with millions and millions of scholarly works. The notion of cracking open a book has become arcane and outdated, and libraries scarcely have any need to house books on site. Yet to me, at least, there is something still comforting about the physical book, or at least its corporeal presence. Books are, or were, the defining features of a library, with their stately ubiquity manifested in rows and columns of multicolored facades. For a nostalgic like myself, it seems as though ROART, the architectural firm behind the renovation, has come to the conclusion that books as a whole are obsolete, and has thus favored to transform our former library into a modern, 21st-century recreation room. But in its pursuit of contemporary, the library has forgotten its purpose.
This is true of the exterior as well. The formerly Brutalist style structure, with thick, imposing masonry walls and discreetly placed light wells offered carefully filtered light into the interior without compromising the commanding and awe-inspiring nature of the exterior. Today, however, that careful haven of preserved time and culture has been breached. A three-story glass curtain wall with prominent stainless steel mullions cascades down the primary elevation, not unlike a glossy spaceship descending upon a little explored planet. As light is now allowed to enter the building uninhibited, the building’s very ethos has been compromised. It can no longer be perceived as a stack of books, as urban myth has long contended. Looking in from the street, one would have difficulty understanding that this building was different than any other utilitarian office building or academic structure on our campus.
This is not to say that the current structure is without any merit. Inside, designers have worked hard to solve some of the library’s major functional problems. The heavily confining brick demi walls, banisters, and balustrades of the previous library have been replaced with smooth horizontal bars, offering a sense of weightlessness and an airiness which never existed previously. Standing in the soaring entrance atrium, one can look upwards and observe activities taking place in the balconies on both sides. It feels as though sense has finally been made of the dizzying 1950s design’s commitment to collective isolationism, with partial balconies and viewing platforms offering strategic vantage points of below. Parts of the library have been reconfigured, to allow for larger and more cohesive study spaces and to relegate offices to more convenient locales. As a result, the number of study spaces has increased drastically. Furthermore, the creation of group study rooms offers a wonderful alternative for small clusters of students to work collaboratively without disturbing the rest of the students in the library, a problem which severely plagued the previous incarnation.
The architects have also resolved much of the library’s dreariness, through the addition of the aforementioned curtain wall and a second wall of fenestration on the 186th Street elevation, the latter of which anchors a particularly handsome reading atrium with colorful furnishings. Dusty vertical blinds, which ruthlessly covered practically every window in the library, have been removed, allowing light (and less attractive views of the surroundings) to enter the library. Throughout, new lighting, painting, carpeting, and furnishings have freshened up the library and helped enhance the feeling of spaciousness in the space.
Yet while the improvements are drastic, the library is not without faults. Especially on the main level, bright furnishings and faintly colored squares of carpet are not quite successful enough to serve as reprieves for a space that can feel sterile and harsh at times, decidedly due to the banished warmth of books. Likewise, exposed brick walls have become integral design features offering desperate relief from the blinding whiteness of the walls, but appear uncomfortable in their new roles as awkward relics of the old space. The brand new workstations on the fourth floor offer sleek hidden wells for charging phones and laptops, but the token panes of frosted glass separating stations declare that privacy is obsolete, too, and that shared working is the way of the future. Replacing the low-ceilinged stack areas on the main floor with computer research stations and communal tables has created a cramped space for working, in which the too-bright lights glare directly down on the heads of innocent library-goers. Perhaps this area would have been better suited for a seating area with dimmer lighting, or–dare I say–as a place for books. Yad Shmuel Belkin, a little-used library corner which pays homage to our late president and sports a bizarre combination of polished granite, light wood, glass brick, and mirrored elements, has only become even more of an anomaly. Perhaps the architects were told to ignore this space, as countless amounts of students have no doubt done as well. But it is a shame that better attention could not have been paid to make this space more inviting.
The profound lack of focus on Yad Shmuel Belkin is exactly opposite to the over-attention given to the library’s entrance. I have no doubt that, for the sake of the purity of architecture, it was essential to relocate the primary entry staircase into the library building. I have no doubt that the architects found it rather strange, and perhaps inconvenient, that people were forced to enter the Glueck Center in order to access the library. But I question if this was the soundest, most practical decision that could be made. Whereas the former staircase was wide and welcoming, with a comforting continuous width and sky colored palette guiding the ascent upwards, the new staircase has an extremely narrow, winding center and haphazardly placed wide steps at the base, as if to compensate for what’s ahead. At the stairwell’s tightest point, the primary walls are cloaked in dark black, which only exacerbate the claustrophobic nature of the space. The passageway from Glueck, frequented throughout the morning by students traveling between Nagel’s Bagels and the study hall, has been reduced to a shrunken vestige of its former self. Lastly, the so-called swing wall, designed to hide Nagel’s Bagels, has succeeded only in dividing the floor space horribly and rendering it virtually unusable.
Perhaps the swing wall’s elaborate mural by Connie Rose, a fanciful depiction of the magic of books, was an effort to turn the space into an inviting one in which people would wish to congregate. But to me, it is as if ROART once again showed its vision of books as no longer ensconced in reality, certainly not within the walls of a library. Perhaps it is ROART apologizing for the lack of emphasis on the written word in the new design, as if by reminding bystanders of the building’s purpose in the form of NASA-esque depictions of stars and planets and kindergarten-style images of mountains, villages, and birds turning into books, we will be satisfied with the failures of the new structure.
Ultimately, we will be satisfied. The library, if we can still call it that, is considerably more comfortable than its previous incarnation. It is indeed better suited for its purposes today, and it is far better equipped for the future. Might there have been a healthier way to design the library in order to effectively integrate past and present? Undoubtedly. But at the very least, the untouched Mendel Gottesman Library on the 5th floor offers relief for one anxious sentimentalist.