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Trio of groups offer up designs for new Central Library

Friday, October 24, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Three potential teams promised the right Central Library at yesterday’s Council meeting, but only one will be picked to move forward on the city’s next landmark.


If City Hall was the monument to former Mayor Kirk Watson’s administration, then the city’s new Central Library will be the crowning achievement for Mayor Will Wynn, who earned honors as an architecture student before becoming a developer.


It would be understandable if the presentations of the three teams tend to blend together. Each promises a building that represents the vitality of Austin. Each has partnered with a high-profile library architecture firm. And each has some tie to an existing downtown project, be it the UT Conference Center or the Palmer Events Center or even the Austin Convention Center.


What is missing is a marquee architect. Antoine Predock was the signature architect on the Austin City Hall, which still gets somewhat mixed reviews from the community when it comes to the building’s utility. It would not have been surprising if Dutch Architect Rem Koolhaas – who designed the striking and frequently mentioned Seattle downtown library – had been on the short list of finalists. But he was not.


Council will award the contract for the design of the proposed 250,000-square foot library at the Council meeting on Nov. 6. The three finalist teams were pared down from 22 proposals and six short-listed interviewees. Each team is distinctive and associated with particular projects in downtown Austin.


San Antonio-Lake/Flato Architects and Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott were the first of three teams to present to Council yesterday. Few firms represent the organic Hill County feel of architecture better than Lake/Flato, which is well known for the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, UT Executive Education and Conference Center, Laguna Gloria and Hotel San Jose on South Congress.


It’s not surprising that Lake/Flato would feature its sustainable strategies front and center in its library plans, promising a design that is 75 percent more energy efficient than the typical library; one that uses local craft and regional materials; and construction and landscaping that would reduce water demand by 80 percent.


The location of the library – on a key block right on Lady Bird Lake – plays well to Lake/Flato’s strengths, no pun intended. In its presentation to Council, the firm spoke of architecture rooted to the land with seamless linkage to the natural realm.


Shepley Bulfinch has designed more than 200 libraries. In a display out in the lobby, the firm featured its work at the Eugene, Oregon library, which would be comparable in size to the proposed Austin library. Carole Wedge talked about a participation process that captured the community spirit, one that incorporated community spaces and catered to a wide range of users.


This team strives toward both environmental consciousness and social progress. In discussion about design, Wedge even talked about how the design might deal with the issue of the homeless that tend to linger around the entrance of Austin’s current central library, as well as the central libraries in most major cities.


The second team is PageSoutherlandPage/Patkau Architects. No architecture firm in Austin comes bigger than PageSoutherlandPage, and the firm is linked with the city’s most significant civic projects: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and the Austin Convention Center, as well as the Town Lake Master Plan.


The firm is partnered with the Canadian firm of Patkau Architects, which featured its work in Vancouver and Winnipeg in its display in the City Hall atrium. During the post-presentation public mingle, partner Larry Speck conversed easily on the urban design principles that have marked both Austin civic architecture and downtown development. He spoke of his firm’s scope and size as a plus, one that would provide the depth and experience to handle the challenges presented by the project.


Architect Pat Patkau of Patkau Architects, in a post-presentation conversation about the much-ballyhooed Seattle library, zeroed in on both the pluses and minuses of the design of a library that was pretty much the gold standard for Austin early in the process of discussing what Austin’s new central library might be.


Those who have been to the Seattle library would understand her talk about the placement of amenities to user-friendly spaces for different kinds of users: the student who needed to dash up the stairs for a quick copy and those who wanted to take a meandering stroll through the collections to explore new books.


Patkau also talked about the relationship between the library building and its public spaces, as well as the use of exhibition and auditorium space for meetings. One of the ideas being tossed around by this team is library space that spills out onto public space where shops and booksellers are located. Booksellers could be located right outside the library doors, like the booksellers on the street in Paris.


Speck said Page Southerland Page had waited 10 years to put together the team for the Central Library, even stepping back from the City Hall project in anticipation of the library project. The Central Library, Speck said, will be one of the city’s most important civic statements.


The team of Barnes Gromatzsky Kosarek and Taniguchi, with Holzman Moss, is the David to the other teams’ Goliaths. In its presentation before Council, Jay Barnes called the team a collection of 23 specialty firms. Its literature emphasizes the diversity and Austin-centric nature of the team. Unlike other teams that tend to force diversity into the project team, more than a third of this team would come out of women/minority firms and almost three-quarters of the team is Austin-based.


The team’s material, in fact, focused more on the diversity of the team and its qualifications than on any particular ideal for space. Firm principals said the team had no one particular “look” or “ideal” because the input of the community would drive the look, and feel, of each individual project.


When it came to design, BGK’s team focused in on user-centered spaces and the utility of the building to meet the community’s needs. They talked about flexible accommodations and easy access to technology, as well as the opportunity to integrate the library site into other area opportunities, tying the corridor together.


Barnes Gromatzsky Kosarek’s projects are substantial, but somewhat more modest in scale than competitor Page Southerland Page and possibly even Lake/Flato. For instance, Barnes Gromatzsky Kosarek built the Palmer Convention Center. Much of its presentation by Partner Jay Barnes in front of Council focused on the team’s commitment to a full and robust public participation process.


Austin projects by this team include the LCRA Redbud Center, UT Almetris Duren Hall, the Texas School for the Deaf and the Palmer Events Center.  The point the team would stress repeatedly during its post-presentation mingle with the public was its commitment to a collaborative and inclusive process and a building that reflected community values and priorities.


The presentation materials from Thursday’s meet-and-greet reception will be on display at City Hall until Oct. 31. The display will then move to the Faulk Central Library from Nov. 1 to Nov. 6. Comments will be taken until Nov. 6, at which time they will be compiled and shared with Council.


Milestones in the project process would be the Council award of a design contract next month, followed by a stakeholder process next April, once the contract is negotiated and signed. Design would begin next May and completed in Spring 2011, with construction to conclude in late 2013.

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