If you’re a New Yorker, chances are you live within walking distance of one of the city’s 207 branch libraries. Roughly a quarter are early-20th-century Carnegie libraries, limestone-and-brick-fronted affairs with high arched windows and fancy cornices meant to bring a sense of ceremony to opening a hardbound volume. Another 65 or so date from the 1960s and ’70s. Named for the mayor who went on a branch-building spree, the squat, cramped, and plain but serviceable “Lindsay boxes” generally make you want to check out a book and go home. People don’t, though. Both generations of branch library architecture have been strained by New Yorkers’ varied needs — for a quiet place to hang out, computer access, job-hunting advice, translation, classes, read-alouds, homework help, voter registration, just getting out of the rain, and assorted other services in dozens of different languages. Your local library is a one-stop shop for civic participation, and a suite of airless rooms with stained carpets and flickering fluorescent lights is not always up to the job.
The Greenpoint branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, at the corner of Norman Avenue and Leonard Street, has gone through a Carnegie and a Lindsay version, and is now on its third building on the site. A few years ago, when workers were digging out the foundations, they found chunks of both its predecessors pancaked into asbestos-laced rubble — the architectural version of finding someone else’s decades-old scribbles in the margins of a library book. That polluted pit took two years and several million dollars to clean up, but it’s finally birthed Greenpoint’s greenest building, a library enfolded in gardens, doing double duty as an environmental education center. It’s the sort of place that makes you want to move in.
Designed by the architecture firm Marble Fairbanks, it’s filled with light and dotted with details that will make its users happy — that is, when pandemic rules ease and they’re finally allowed past the circulation desk. It’s a narrow three-floor building with a one-story wing sticking out at an angle, like a hastily piled stack of books waiting for someone to knock it back into alignment. That diagonal slash on a gridded square is one of those pattern disruptions you sense rather than notice, like running into a friend who may have just lost a few extra pounds (though maybe it’s better not to remark on it, just in case). The slight shift gives the streetfront a topographical depth, like an uneven coastal cliff. An overhang juts out to the sidewalk, its sides clad in rough cedar planks. Gray metal trim frames a recessed glass façade, and the entrance is tucked beneath, protected from the rain and glare. The angled wing, which contains the children’s section, pulls back to make room for a plaza designed by SCAPE. An elegant concoction of pavers and cobblestones bordering a miniature woodland is broken by a tiny peak of glacier-carved boulders. Sitting on one of the zigzag benches in the sun, what you register is a particle of geological energy placed in the middle of Brooklyn, an homage to nature’s apparent randomness. But the outcropping, like so many of the building’s flourishes, also raises the kind of environmental question (why those rocks, and why there?) to which librarians will obligingly provide answers (the rocks follow the path of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which migrated across Brooklyn about 18,000 years ago).
The first chunk of money that nudged the desire for a new and larger library down the path to reality was a $5 million grant from the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, which Exxon created to help atone for the multi-decade poisoning of Newtown Creek. (Much as Andrew Carnegie endowed libraries to launder his terrible robber-baron record.) The library takes its environmental mission seriously, and the plaza is just one of three outdoor areas: One floor up, a question-mark-shaped curve of bleachers and greenery embraces an ample reading deck. Above that, birds and bees can go about their business in a rooftop pollinator garden, with a view of the ground-hugging neighborhood below. The green theme continues inside. Door handles and handrails are made of the warm cherrywood that also wraps the swooping front desk. Butterflies whisper on a circular rug in the children’s section. Along one wall, four narrow windows, like arrowslits in a castle tower, throw strips of sunlight on the floor to mark each equinox and solstice. Three reading rooms are clad in different local woods: ash, walnut, and red oak. And, more important than all these symbolic design gestures — or even all the sustainability gear, like a pergola of solar panels and a hand-pumped stormwater cistern — are the reading materials, resources, and programming geared to addressing the more vexing questions that children ask: Will the planet still be livable when I grow up?
The bad news is that the 15,000-square-foot building wound up costing nearly $23 million, or $1,533 per square foot, which is a nosebleed-inducing figure even by the ridiculously inflated standards of New York public projects. Brooklyn Public Library CEO Linda Johnson says that discovering that the site was laced with asbestos delayed construction and bumped up the budget by about 25 percent. The landscaped gardens add another premium. Even that doesn’t account for the price tag, but Johnson insists it’s not simply the consequence of replacing a plain slab with bespoke architecture, either. “Sites vary, needs vary. The Lindsay boxes were built with a total disregard for design and, since they’re all the same age, they’re all at more or less the same stage of decline.” What New York needs now, Johnson says, is the money and determination to upgrade the dozens of libraries that, whether they’re a century old or merely 60, are all falling apart in sync. And when the opportunity to start from scratch comes along, it should produce a neighborhood gem, more like a church than a 7-Eleven. The price of doing so should jolt the city into scouring its spending practices.
Indeed, that has started to happen. Last year, the Department of Design and Construction went on a self-improvement regimen aimed at raising efficiency, but waste, delays, and overruns are as hard to eradicate as toxic mold, as a symposium presented by the Center for an Urban Future detailed. The problem is still worth grappling with: If it costs too much to do things well, the answer is to figure out ways to pay less, not do less or do it badly. “I want people in the neighborhood to feel proud of their library and to know what it feels like to spend time in an uplifting building,” Johnson says. For now, they can experience it only from the curb, but judging from an hour spent watching people drift by, loitering in the plaza, and peering through the door, it’s already exerting a powerful pull on birds and readers alike.