interior view of childrens' reading room with kids sitting on orange steps and a colorful carpet

Designs for Two Libraries Reimagine the Familiar Typology as a Community Hub

Projects by WORKac and Multistudio (formerly Gould Evans) transform humdrum buildings into places to learn, explore, and inspire.

During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, public space became freighted with contradictions. On one hand, especially before vaccines were widely available, any shared spaces began to be viewed as dangerous, charged with the possibility of contagion. On the other, as isolation took a heavy mental toll and restaurants and cafés remained off-limits, public spaces such as libraries became crucial gathering spots for people craving safe social contact. Two recent library projects reflect the typology’s evolving role as a community center: One is a renovation of a big-box grocery store in Olathe, Kansas, by Multistudio (formerly Gould Evans) and Group 4 Architecture; the other is a retrofit of the ground floor of a 1901 industrial building in Dumbo, Brooklyn, by WORKac


exterior library showing large sun shade and glass facade
Top: The playful color scheme of the children’s area at the heart of WORKac’s new Adams Street Library in Dumbo, Brooklyn, gives young readers an engaging place to discover a love of books. COURTESY BRUCE DAMONTE
Above: A massive sunshade screens the glass facade of the Olathe Indian Creek Library in Olathe, Kansas, designed by Multistudio (formerly known as Gould Evans) with Group 4 Architecture. The firm collaborated with the library community to transform a big-box grocery store into a space where people of all kinds could come together. COURTESY MICHAEL ROBINSON

“I think [libraries are] the last true community and public space,” WORKac cofounder and principal Amale Andraos says. “There’s so much desire to create this kind of community-involved space.” With the support of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) and the nonprofit organization Hester Street, WORKac held a series of community engagement sessions to figure out exactly what potential users would need from the Adams Street Library, a branch of BPL. The sessions revealed that children would need to be, in the words of Andraos, “the heart of the space,” and that as a whole, the library would ideally serve as a place where “everyone could come together.” To that end, Andraos and WORKac principal and cofounder Dan Wood designed the interior around a central elevated children’s space. The space’s raised floor plane puts kids at eye level with the views out onto the East River visible through punch-outs in the walls that surround it and windows at the perimeter of the building. 

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exterior of brick building painted with the word "library"
WORKac transformed the interior of a former torpedo factory on the Brooklyn waterfront into a community-oriented library. Cutouts in the walls and ceilings connect different zones and reveal the historic building’s structure, while a bold paint job outside lets passersby know that this otherwise unremarkable brick building is now a cornerstone of the community. COURTESY BRUCE DAMONTE
interior library with yellow and gray armchairs
The interior of the Olathe Indian Creek Library makes clever use of the open floor plan that belies the building’s retail origins. With a makerspace, a café, a gaming area, a recording studio, and a large event room, the project embraces the new roles libraries have come to play in many communities. COURTESY MICHAEL ROBINSON

This programmatic integration, creating spaces that give users a sense both of distinct identity and of universal inclusion, was also a key consideration for the Olathe Indian Creek Library’s designers at Multistudio, lead designer, and Group 4 Architecture, the project’s library planner. Interior designer Katie Pohlman describes libraries as “one of the few places where everyone from a toddler to a senior citizen can be and engage with each other.” With this in mind, her team created an interior with few true hard partitions that still houses spaces with varying functions: a makerspace, a café, a gaming area, a recording studio, a large event room. This last space, placed just to the right of the building’s entrance, features a front wall that can either close it off or open it up to the rest of the library. Furniture elements in teen and children’s spaces are smaller than in the community spaces but retain the same style and color scheme, creating differentiation as well as continuity and helping users find a sense of identity within the library. 

As with the Adams Street Library, programmatic decisions for Olathe Indian Creek were made in close consultation with the community and potential users through listening sessions, whose insights Pohlman says designers have to take special care to incorporate: “Unless we are taking that information and applying it to the design, it’s a missed opportunity. It’s not just about the community being involved, it’s about seeing their input in the design.” Chairs in the gaming room, for example, were selected by members of Olathe’s teen council. 

In both places, activity and gathering, more than silence or reading, drove the design. “The idea of a quiet library is just over,” says Wood. “No one wants to hear about that anymore.” To bring people into these finely considered interior spaces, both libraries use their exterior to send a signal to potential patrons. On Adams Street, the gesture is grand but minimally executed: White letters spelling out “LIBRARY” stretch over the windows and wall of the building’s red-painted western facade, a supergraphic visible from the waterfront park it faces. In Olathe, a metal sunshade system composed of panels connected via tubing and designed to mimic the way that cottonwood tree leaves reflect sunlight protects the interior from overheating and catches the eye of passersby who might stumble upon the library as they explore the adjacent public park and greenways. This connectivity will, hopefully, keep patrons of all ages coming to libraries and participating in their constant evolution.

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