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Chinatown Library’s architecture draws accolades to neighborhood

PHOTO/ Steven Kevil, 2016

Many aging libraries are dreary affairs with antiquated technology and low lighting, burrowed into indistinct brown and grey buildings.

In Chinatown, however, library patrons are greeted with a postmodern structure of sweeping glass windows, sharply designed metal fins, and elegant simplicity. Inside, the library greets the community with ample meeting spaces, contemporary technology, and a skylight that ignites the central meeting area with warmth.

All of these features helped the Chinatown Public Library, located at 2100 S. Wentworth, win a national design award in April from the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association. The Institute/Association awarded seven design awards to buildings for 2016. The $19 million Chinatown Library opened on the corner of Archer and Wentworth Avenues in summer 2015, drawing praise, ire, and curiosity within the community. Some architects argue that the building is a bastion of contemporary relevance – a library for a new era.

Prior to the city allocating the funding to design and construct the new library, the Chinatown Public Library was operated down the street out of a rented space. The facility lacked the ability to house the necessary technology and services a modern library needs to offer.

Jin Duàn, 25, a parking garage attendant and Chinatown resident, was eager when the library moved. “Chinatown deserves a good library,” Duàn said. “The whole area is changing, and having a nice building like that is a good way to keep going forward.”

Chicago has 80 public libraries, many having been around for years. Thirty-one of them do not have access to the city’s “CyberNavigators,” a program featuring basic computer amenities and training. Chinatown not only offers the program at the new library, but in Cantonese and Japanese, as well as English.

The new award-winning building attempts to combine the ‘old’ traditional Chinatown with the more modern one to create a cohesive community. For residents like Duàn, the desire to move out from under the stigma of the city’s South Side is strong.

The library’s design is meant to, in part, create a space representative of the neighborhood. “This building executes an architecture demonstrating a fluid, yet clear and consistent ideology,” said John McWaters, an architectural designer at Nashville’s Pfeffer Torode firm.

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The Chinatown Library “stands in relation to the heritage of the neighborhood,” McWaters said, while “striking an effective balance between cultures to emphasize both social and physical nuances that make the people and place feel their presence.”

Such nuances are scattered throughout the library’s design. Brian Lee, the acclaimed architect behind the building, added a central courtyard-like plan to allude to traditional Chinese architecture and its penchant for interconnecting courtyards.

“The interior courtyard has natural light from the roof port for daylighting,” said Christopher Pettit, an architectural designer at Klai Juba Wald Architects in Las Vegas. Pettit suspects that the judging process for the design awards the library has won likely involved whether it “met and exceeded the responsibility of designing green architecture, while having an understanding of the cultural significance of being in the Chinatown area.”

The Chinatown Library is a ‘green’ building, having been certified gold in energy design. The roof of the Chinatown library is partially covered by a large section of grass. It’s not easily view-able, though it can be seen from the red line platform.

A green roof like this delays the entry of storm water, which in effect, prevents sewage overflows in major cities, said Tim Bertschinger, a senior project designer at the international architecture house Perkins Eastman.

Chinatown’s library is the answer to community members like Duàn who desire a “good library”with better resources for the neighborhood.


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