A photograph of a rammed earth library designed by WRNS studio at dusk, the building is connected to an historic Spanish revival municipal building
The original historic town hall, to the right of the image, maintains its prominent position on the site, while the library steps back a bit.

WRNS Studio Designs a Library Where Everything Can be Seen but Not Heard

The San Francisco–based studio’s design for the Bay Area’s Atherton Library incorporates rammed earth and Spanish Revival elements.

When the architects at WRNS Studio met with the stakeholders, staff, and elected officials of Atherton, California, they had to pause their meetings from time to time. The group was planning a new library and civic center in the city’s historic town hall, and when a train thundered by, the noise was deafening. In response, the design team used rammed earth to create a 10,000-square-foot library that is virtually soundproof and also has lower embodied energy. “The building feels like a giant hug,” says Rachel McDonnell, who represented San Mateo County Libraries, which operates the library, on the client side. 

Located in the San Francisco Bay Area, Atherton Library is a public facility within one of the wealthiest communities in the United States. Though boldfaced names such as basketball player Steph Curry and Google cofounder Sergey Brin live on its acre-plus wooded estates, the city’s coffers are relatively meager because it has no commercial district to bring in tax revenue. Hence its original 1928 Spanish Revival town hall and library were small and outdated, and its police and city administration had long outgrown a 1950s building and overflowed into portables parked next to the railroad. The roughly $20 million library was funded through countywide property taxes, and the $31 million civic center was paid for with savings from the town’s general fund, $7 million in loans, and $5 million in private donations.   

A photograph of the exterior of a library courtyard with a rammed earth wall, children are playing outside
Rammed earth walls, created by the late David Easton of Rammed Earth Works, define the front entrance. The landscape design, featuring native plantings, is by SWA.
A photograph of the childrens' area of the atherton library
The children’s area is furnished with felt boulders as well as more traditional seating.

WRNS Studio addressed the numerous programmatic requirements in a complex that speaks to the city’s past as well as its future. They rehabilitated the historic town hall, and designed a new two-story 28,575-square-foot city hall, giving it Spanish Revival elements such as a red barrel-tile roof, exposed wood beams, and wrought-iron details. To create a pedestrian and bike-friendly town center, they removed the road that once divided the town hall and library from the city offices and connected the two halves with a landscaped plaza.  

Architecturally speaking, the new library is the forward-looking component of the new civic center. The undulating one-story building, rendered in rammed earth and Western red cedar siding, defers to the quiet residential neighborhood and embraces its forested surroundings. At each end of the building, a glass curtain wall opens to a large deck through glass doors; visitors can enter and exit from either side, making the building physically as well as visually porous. “The building doesn’t have a ‘look-at-me’ language,” says Adam Woltag, design partner at WRNS Studio. “It’s very quiet, and that was intentional.” 

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a photograph of the interior of the library that shows children reading
Three large skylights double as wayfinding devices. The stretch fabric ceiling helps with acoustic control. A row of offices on the left are popular places to work and can be booked by the public for two hours at a time.

Though the library is one continuous space, it is also long, which means there is a significant amount of separation between the spacious children’s area on the north end and the official “quiet” area, which is further soundproofed with a glass partition. The long wall that parallels the nearby railroad is lined with glass-walled private offices and meeting rooms that can be booked by the public. Along the facing wall is a bookcase that meanders, starting out as a convex curve and switching to a concave one, encouraging patrons to browse and explore. Behind the bookcase wall is a maker space where high-decibel activities can be seen and not heard through insulated windows. Three large round skylights bring in natural light and double as wayfinding devices, helping library staff direct patrons to different parts of the building. 

“This library feels more office-y,” noted first-time Atherton Library patron Karen Miao one morning in early November. She had been scoping out various local libraries for their potential as workspaces. “It has beautiful modern furniture and beautiful skylights. I got really excited when I saw the line of meeting rooms you could reserve—the Holy Grail for being able to do work is a closed door.”  

I recently booked one of the library’s meeting rooms for a Zoom call. The even lighting was much more flattering than the lighting in my house, and the rammed earth’s sedimentary layers created an intriguing but subtle background. During the call, a train came by: I could barely sense a low rumble as it passed, and the person on the other end couldn’t hear it at all.  

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