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The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Architectural Excellence in Community Design 2nd Place

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP for Chicago Public Library – Chinatown Branch

Eric Young Smith

When Chicagoans – or just about anyone, anywhere think about public libraries, they are likely to conjure an image of a rectangular building with some windows. No longer. Designed by renowned architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago’s new Chinatown branch at Archer and Wentworth breaks the mold.

The trapezoidal-shaped, two-story, glass-walled structure is a visual magnet - a transparent, welcoming institution by day and a literal lantern at night, where the glow emanating from its internal light reaches the traffic on neighboring streets and passengers on the CTA’s Red Line and the nearby Cermak station.

The challenge for Brian Lee, the lead designer from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who with partner Wight and Company won a competition to design and build the library, was to accommodate the extraordinary range of activities that had been in place at the old branch and incorporate new ones that the additional space allowed. Furthermore, Lee wanted the building to be a bridge between the “old” Chinatown to the south and the “new” Chinatown that has evolved north of Cermak.

The effect of the library, with its glass exterior walls, open central stairway, and soaring, exposed ceiling leading to anoculus at its peak, is of a vast, open, ethereal space that one floats through rather than walks. And design didn’t stop with the building. Lee pulled back its corners (resulting in the unusual trapezoid shape) to make room for a stand of gingko trees and a garden in what’s an extremely dense neighborhood.

“This is more than just a place for books,” said Brian Bannon, commissioner and CEO of the Chicago Public Library. “It’s a center for community learning. It represents a new vision for our neighborhood libraries and shows that when you create a dynamic public space it will activate a neighborhood.”

For Si Chen, who manages the branch, the greatest benefit is the ability of the new building to accommodate the many children focused on early, active learning, the teens using the YOUmedia learning lab, and the adult and senior immigrant community, which highly values the ESL classes and citizen assistance programs the library provides.

“You feel the energy flowing here,” she said. “It’s very 21st century.”