On May 16, the new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library opened at the University of Chicago, right across the street from my lab. And about time, too: parking near my building has been scant for the two years of construction. The library, a Fuller-like glass dome designed by Helmut Jahn, with the stored books extending several floors underground, has been hailed as an architectural marvel.
Most intriguing is how the books are retrieved, described in the video below. They’re sequestered in big bins, and huge cranes retrieve each book by grabbing its bin and hoisting the whole schmear up to circulation, where the book is plucked out. Presumably the cranes then lower the bin back underground. It does seem like an enormous use of energy to get a single book, but the University simply ran out of onsite space for book storage. The librarians and University made a decision—a wise one, I think—to keep the books on campus rather than store them at a remote site, which would make them hard to access.
Here’s the dome from the outside:
I visited the place eight days ago. It was a rainy day and so it was a bit gloomy inside the dome. The students studying at the tables looked dwarfed and uncomfortable. It was also a chilly day and quite cold inside. Note to University: get some heat in there!
My own building, a lovely Gothic-style construction, encrusted with spires and gargoyles, can be seen through the window, above the cylindrical fixtures on the right:
Here’s the futuristic circulation and book-retrieval desk:
Finally, a University-made video that shows you how books are retrieved:
It’s a nice-looking minimalist structure, and worth a visit, but I would not study or work in there—it’s too sterile and forbidding. The older library to which it’s connected (Regenstein) is much more congenial, with cozy nooks and comfy chairs. The Chicago Tribune notes the pluses and minuses:
The design brings a welcome jolt of modernity to a campus that has sometimes seemed afraid to stray from its neo-Gothic roots. Here, architecture and time move forward boldly but respectfully — without the jarring crayon palette of orange, purple, yellow and pink at the adjoining Max Palevsky Residential Commons.
Still, there are faults, including the oversized, billboard-like letters that spell out the library’s name on the concrete beam. Thicker landscaping (perhaps with thorns?) will have to be added so people can’t climb the dome, as some already have done. In addition, a light-filtering ceramic dot pattern on the upper portion of the dome’s glass makes the dome look darker, less transparent and less delicately articulated than Jahn’s renderings suggested. Only at night, when it glows from within, does the library truly become a minimalist bubble.