Walking around inside the new East Boston branch of the Boston Public Library sometimes feels like wandering across a rolling outdoor landscape.
Light filters down from what looks like the sky but is in reality a roof of luminous, undulating cloudlike shapes. Down below at the floor, there are no walls or partitions. The whole space of the library, at least the part the public has access to, is one huge room.
Elders, toddlers, video gamers, moms and pops, teens keeping a watchful eye on their younger siblings: All share the same space. It’s as if a variety of ages and interest groups were camping out in an open meadow.
This is the best small contemporary library I’ve seen anywhere. The architects were the Boston firm of William Rawn Associates. Rawn and his colleagues worked closely with Amy Ryan, the president of the Boston Public Library, and with an active neighborhood advisory committee.
To be sure, there are designated areas for different groups and activities. But there’s no isolated teen room, no separate children’s library. Instead there are subtle demarcations created by low shelving and furnishings. In one corner, a change in floor level gives the smallest kids an overview of the whole space.
Rawn and Ryan both say they were inspired by the diversity of East Boston, or Eastie as it’s sometimes called. Many of the growing neighborhood’s 40,000 residents are new to the United States, and they represent a multitude of ethnicities. When you approach the library’s entrance, you walk across a row of stone pavers, each imprinted with the name of the capital city of a country. Those are the 21 nations, scattered from El Salvador to China, that have supplied the largest population groups in today’s East Boston.
The result of all that diversity, indoors, is a pleasing city-like buzz of human activity, not the nervous “shush” you hear in some libraries. You can tuck yourself away for a little privacy if you want to, the way you might nestle against a tree in a garden. And for the solipsists there’s one “quiet reading room.” But it’s clear that just about everyone is happily sharing a common space.
Rawn first became known as the architect-hero of a 1985 bestseller, “House” by Tracy Kidder. In recent years, he’s emerged as one of Boston’s best. He and his firm designed at least three of the outstanding recent buildings in the Boston area: an elegant glass dormitory tower at Northeastern University, a superb central library for Cambridge, and the brilliant Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley.
And in February came the opening of Rawn’s $100 million, 16-story tower at the Berklee College of Music that provides dormitory and teaching space. He’s also working on improvements to the newer wing of the central library in Copley Square. Anything he does to that building, designed by the architect Philip Johnson, will be an improvement.
Back to East Boston. The new branch library stands in the middle of a large public green space, the Bremen Street Park, which also is home to a YMCA in a former train station. Glass walls on three sides of the library bring in a lot of natural light. But there was still a problem of how to get daylight into the center of such a big space. Other recent Boston branches do that by carving out a garden courtyard, open to the sky, in the middle of the building. But East Boston already is in a park and doesn’t need an interior garden. Solving that conundrum was what led to the invention of the cloud-like roof, which became the means of spreading natural daylight evenly through the library.
The library’s exterior doesn’t quite match the quality of the interior. There’s nothing the matter with it, but it’s not particularly interesting either. The great undulating roof, so delightful indoors, reads outdoors as a kind of roadside attention-getter. Extended eaves that cantilever out past the glass walls are probably doing good work as sunshades, but they don’t seem to come from the same visual world as the marvelous interiors. Likable, though, is a so-called “reading porch,” with long views of the Boston skyline. The porch is lined with, of all things, Adirondack chairs. Talk about cultural diversity.
Like any public building, the East Boston branch is the product of a dizzying range of authors. Besides the architect and the city’s library system, there were also MassPort (which owns the park), the state Board of Library Commissioners (which kicked in $7.25 million), the city’s Department of Property and Management (which supervised the construction), and the citizens advisory committee, among others. Somehow, everything got coordinated. Total cost was $17.5 million. The library opened on Nov. 2.
One statistic tells how libraries are changing. There are 54 public computers at East Boston. That’s one of the reasons the library is a popular hangout for kids. As you watch tweens polishing their computer skills by playing video games, teens learning bike repair, elders stopping by for a bit of social warmth on a cold day, you realize how the institution of the branch public library is again becoming, as it was in the past, a community center for all ages.
Library president Ryan is eager to move the system into the digital era, and East Boston is her first shot at doing so. When she lists the library’s capacity, she says 20,000 items, but that number includes not only paper books but also e-books, CDs and DVDs. You can love traditional books — I certainly do — and still know that a library today must be a market of many kinds of communication, especially if it hopes to entice kids off the street.
Architecture always embodies a message. Here in East Boston, the message is a metaphor. The library floor is like a piece of land shared by many kinds of people under a soft bright sky. It embodies the truth, or maybe the hope, that with all our many differences we can be one community.
Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.