Happy Discovery

In its new wing, the Queens Central Library finds delightful ways to encourage kids to learn.

1100 Architect

Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership

Children’s Library Discovery Center
Queens Central Library
89-11 Merrick Boulevard
(718) 990-0700

Queens, New York

When 1100 Architect began work on the Children’s Library Discovery Center (CLDC), a 22,000-square-foot addition to the Queens Central Library in New York City, the operative word, the firm decided, was discovery. At the heart of the CLDC’s program would be a rotating series of interactive exhibits meant to spark and encourage kids’ interest in science. “We took that as an architectural concept,” says firm principal Juergen Riehm. “The theme of experiential discovery as a learning tool became the idea behind the design.”

That translated into two light-filled, largely open-plan levels, which are linked by a broad, sculptural stair and designed for maximum flexibility. “There are multiple data ports and electrical connections, and the stacks can all be taken down and rearranged,” Riehm explains. The firm also created desks and shelves using neutral-toned materials like birch plywood, against which attention-grabbing splashes of color might better stand out. “And we made the perimeter extra thick, so that the children could have benches within the windows,” Riehm adds. “It plays off the theme of discovery, the interplay between views in and out.”

That theme is most pleasurably expressed via the project’s graphics, iconic objects, and way-finding elements, created by the Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership. These address the transformation of the library typology, in Riehm’s formulation, “from a quiet place into a retail environment,” a change evident in the wide portal connecting the institutional, 1960s-vintage Central Library to its new wing. The entrance is surrounded by rainbow-hued stripes that flow down from a bright orange sign that reads “DISCOVER!” into lines of color that lead, yellow brick road–style, into the CLDC’s heart. It creates an experience akin to walking into a lively new store from the public area of a dowdy shopping mall.

Inside, Skolnick used a variety of gambits. At the center of the first level lies the CLDC’s showpiece: a vast, vivid, abstract floor map of the borough of Queens that highlights major landmarks (among them are the Mets’ new ballpark and the Unisphere, the beloved relic of the 1964 World’s Fair), as well as the locations of other Queens library branches. Legible, color-coded signage points visitors toward the information and librarians’ desks, study areas, a multipurpose room, elevators, and restrooms, and indicates the contents of the various stacks. For the second floor, which more closely resembles a traditional library, Skolnick designed thematic sculptural icons—planets, sea creatures, musical instruments, and the like—which hang above the stacks to help children locate different reading categories.

The 19 interactive exhibits on display—out of a total of 36 developed by San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum—are grouped together on the ground floor and demarcated by overhead signage featuring aphorisms like “Science is trying things out.” The exhibits have close-at-hand shelves with related books, and bulletin boards to showcase kids’ work. The linkage, says Lynn Cole, the library’s interactive exhibits supervisor, “facilitates that additional stretch, after you get them interested, to take that next step and learn more.”

The firms’ efforts combine with special effectiveness in the library’s early childhood area. 1100 Architect elevated the floor height to make the space feel more cozy, and integrated a computer table into the radiant-heated floor so small children could easily scoot up to it (an effect similar to a tatami room in a Japanese restaurant). Meanwhile, Skolnick introduced a capacious aquarium, fish mobiles, and an illuminated floor-to-ceiling sculpture of a crashing wave. “We wanted to make it a tactile environment, to connect children to science in a playful way,” says Riehm—an explanation that’s no less applicable to the overall, sublimely kid-friendly experience.

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