exterior of library with patio and people reading

A New Library Is a Living Room for a Whole Town

In Brisbane, California, a new library packs myriad user experiences into a small package, while delivering on sustainability.

Brisbane, California got a brand-new library last fall, one that acts more like a living room. Designed, in a one-off collaboration, by Siegel & Strain Architects and Karin Payson Architecture + Design, it is a layered communal space that balances apparent contradictions: It fits into its context and stands out at the same time. It brings the outdoors inside and draws the indoors out. It even allows visitors to be alone, in public—to sit in a space that feels private, but with the possibility of having chance encounters.

exterior of front of library in evening

Facing the town center and the mountain that embraces it just south of San Francisco, the library’s rooms open fully to the outdoors. A smaller, raised garden in front acts like a stoop on a city block.Its roofline largely fits the scale of the rest of the street, but at the entrance, tree-like Y columns, a wooden overhang, and glazed roof distinguish the building from its neighbors. This composition is a “light-filled gesture” that links the street, through the building, to the courtyard, bringing the outdoors in and extending the indoors outside. Windows—the large skylight, floor-to-ceiling, accordion doors, and clerestories—draw in light and views.

people reading by a window
circulation area of library with wooden walls and ceilings

To accommodate changing technology and community needs, and to serve “layers” of users of all ages, the spaces were designed to be diverse and adaptive. “The idea was [to create] a rich space with many opportunities,” says Siegel & Strain principal Susi Marzuola who mentioned older people, parents with young children, and the after-school crowd as important user groups. To accommodate various uses in a relatively small space, the community room can be partitioned into smaller program areas or expanded inside and outward onto the patios, where all programming, educational or civic, can be hosted outdoors.

Adult, teen and children’s areas open off an atrium with neutral and natural finishes for the grown-ups but increasingly bright colors toward the kids’ areas, where niches for play and reading open up. These include circular wall cut-outs with channel-tufted seating that looks out of “bug-eye” portholes, a woven willow hut for sitting with a book or a buddy or hiding from parents, and a whimsical, interactive play wall designed by The Burgeon Group.

desks in atrium area of library

The project also reflects and respects nature. The carpet evokes the “dappled” light that filters through trees outside. Extensive maple wood surfaces and furniture are 90% FSC-certified, while offering comfort and tactility. Designed to be equivalent to LEED Silver, the building emphasizes sustainable water practices including stormwater detention, rainwater collection, and low-flow fixtures. In fact, in line with the library’s mission, the water tower is labeled as a rainwater collection point, a simple gesture that makes it a teaching moment and a PSA for climate change optimism.”I love working in small towns,” Marzuola says. “The possibilities are endless, the hope eternal.”

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