Walking through Temple University’s new, sun-drenched Charles Library, two things you notice right away: First, it’s a quiet place, even by library standards. And, second, hardly anyone has a book in front of them. I counted barely a half-dozen of those quaint analog objects in use during a recent visit. Yet the four-story building was packed with students — hunkered over work tables, curled up in easy chairs, conversing with friends in the cafe, almost always with a laptop serving as another appendage.
Very few of those people actually needed a physical library to do their schoolwork. Temple’s campus, like those of most American universities, has no shortage of spaces where students can plunk down a laptop and access the cloud’s virtual storehouse of information. But in the weeks since school began, about 35,000 visitors a day have been streaming through the doors of Charles Library, according to Joseph Lucia, dean of libraries. That number is roughly equal to Temple’s student population.
The library’s seductive architecture is a big reason for its instant popularity. The building’s two enormous arched portals practically enfold you in their wide embrace, tugging you into the lobby. From the Pollet Walk entrance, you can see straight through the cavernous space, where the cedar-clad ceiling swells and rolls like an ocean wave before bursting out the other side and nearly crashing onto North 13th Street.
Inside, huge windows fill the reading areas with natural light, and, drawn by the sun, students pull sloping lounge chairs right up to the glass to bathe in its rays. From the top floor, you can gaze across the rooftop’s wildflower meadow at the busy campus below and catch a glimpse of the Center City skyline in the distance. Plus, you can enjoy the mesmerizing “book bot” — a computer-controlled book retrieval machine — in action through a viewing window. Why would you bother to work anywhere else?
Designed by the New York office of Snohetta, an international firm known for its thoughtful, people-centric buildings, and Stantec’s east coast office. the granite-clad Charles Library is easily the most compelling work of architecture Temple has produced in decades. Actually, it is easily one of the best new buildings in Philadelphia. That doesn’t mean it is without flaws. But the level of ambition is something new for Temple.
Partly because the university has evolved in fits and starts from a commuter school into a sprawling residential campus, Temple has not always made good architectural choices. For years, it operated without a campus master plan or landscape plan. New projects seemed to be airdropped at random onto its North Philadelphia campus, so that the fancy entrance of one building would stare into the dark maw of another’s loading dock.
Just before embarking on the library project, Temple finally hired a campus architect, Margaret Carney, who set out to bring order to a messy collection of buildings. Together with Lucia, who was lured from Villanova University for the project, she saw the library’s placement on 13th Street, kitty-corner from the old Paley Library, as the first step in remaking the campus. Carney helped shepherd through a new landscape plan that called for creating a campus green in front of the library, with Temple’s iconic bell tower at the center.
Carney and Lucia were also deeply involved in selecting Snohetta for the job. Temple has hired plenty of big-name architects before, but this was the first time that knowledgeable administrators were there to guide a project from the beginning. Even though they were asked to cut the total budget from $190 million to $175 million (with $135 million of that for construction), their collaboration with the architects kept the design from dissolving into the usual mush.
Looking at the vast expanse of Minnesota black granite that covers the library’s exterior, you would never know there had been extensive cost-cutting. The handsome material is a nod to early Temple buildings, like Mitten and Sullivan Halls. But they were built the old-fashioned way, with real stone blocks laid horizontally. Here, the granite is veneered onto the surface in vertical strips textured to resemble corduroy. It took a lot of that stone to cover all that surface.
Thanks to the book bot, Temple was able to keep the library from being even bigger. The compact storage system reduced the amount of space needed to store its 1.2 million-volume collection to just 5% of the library’s 200,000 square feet. Yet the Charles Library is still a chonk of a building, running nearly two city blocks along Liacouras Walk.
Snohetta has done a very good job of breaking up what could have been a numbing blank facade along the pedestrian-only Liacouras Walk. The architects split the library into two sections and artfully canted the walls. But wouldn’t you know it? The building’s north end terminates in a massive loading dock on Norris Street, across from the entrance to the Tomlinson Theater. The intersection was already a case study in urban failure, with blank walls and high fences on three corners, so now it is, in a sense, complete.
Because the book bot is pushed to the north end of the building, the real design action is concentrated on the southern end. That’s where the arched entrances are located and where you get the first glimpse of the cedar panels that form the ceiling of the lobby. From the underside of the canopies, they flow inside, cozying up the enormous space. A third arch subtly divides the lobby into two parts: a freely accessible side with a cafe, and a secured side that leads to the upper reading rooms. (The public can enter by presenting an ID.)
As the granite cladding on the exterior suggests, Charles Library is a modern building in traditional clothing. The lead designer, Craig Dykers, incorporated several familiar classical elements as a way of connecting this library to the long lineage of library-building. Those references start with the overscaled arches at the entrances, and continue inside with a ceiling oculus that calls your eye upward. The angled columns in the lobby are meant to recall the ancient world’s columned temples.
There’s also a monumental staircase, of sorts. Normally these are grand gestures that dominate a building. Dykers used it here mainly to encourage people to climb to the upper floors instead of taking the elevator. Switch-backing upward is a pleasant experience, thanks to the light. It soon becomes clear, however, that Temple spent the real money on the ground floor. In most libraries, the main reading room would be lavishly decorated. Here, it’s a vanilla box — a giant study hall, albeit with spectacular southern views. If that room isn’t to your taste, you can work in a glass-walled study room or the makers space. My choice, on a nice day, would be the outdoor terrace.
The library’s approach to technology is almost as interesting as the architecture. Two viewing windows open onto the guts of the book bot, a futuristic room that fuses the aesthetics of The Matrix with that of an Amazon fulfillment center. An hour after summoning a book from an app on your phone, you get a message from the book bot that it is waiting at the pick-up desk.
One of the smartest moves, however, was the decision to forgo electrical outlets on the work tables, eliminating the usual tangle of adapter cords. As an alternative, visitors can rent 10-hour battery packs and fully charged laptops from vending machines. To the university’s credit, it has installed a bank of desktop computers on the ground floor for public use, a recognition of the digital divide that exists in the surrounding North Philadelphia neighborhoods. The building could probably use more.
Charles Library has been a long time coming. Carney, who nurtured the original design, has moved on, and, sadly, Temple has not hired another university architect to take her place. This is especially troublesome as the university lurches toward building a misguided football stadium. Charles Library is a great accomplishment, but it should be the beginning, not the end, of Temple’s campus-building aspirations.