The new Boston Public Library Allston Branch by Machado and Silvetti Associates is one of twenty-seven branches in the city’s library system.
Differing from the main library, these local facilities provide an important outreach to Boston’s neighborhoods, often serving as community centers in addition to their role housing books. This building type has, in the time since H. H. Richardson’s designs for various small libraries in New England, been characterized by a casual expression that is less authoritarian than other civic buildings, instead projecting an image of accessibility and democratic values.
Text courtesy of Machado and Silvetti Associates Photographs courtesy of Michael Moran
The site reinforced this latent tendency towards an informal architecture, because the neighborhood lacks any clear architectural language. The library’s context is a heavily trafficked thoroughfare lined with triple-decker wood residences, one-story brick warehouses, and a few scattered commercial buildings. The client also placed specific demands on the building, among them requirements for a central reading garden, a separate entry for community use, and a one-story configuration to maximize visual supervision on the inside.
Responding to these various conditions, the 20,000 square foot building’s parti is divided into three parallel bands aligning with the main street — two “solid” zones and one central void. These correspond to the basic programmatic functions of the building. The front zone contains all the active, information-gathering program components, including the stacks. The rear zone contains all of the meeting and program spaces, which have off-hours community use.
The middle zone is very transparent, with alternating gardens and glass pavilion reading rooms. By creating several small garden spaces rather than a single large court, each reading room is able to have a garden on two sides. This organization allows a beautiful specimen Beech tree to be preserved in one of the gardens. Each garden takes on differing characteristics: the children’s space is shaded by the Beech tree’s large canopy; the adult reading garden contains small, flowering trees in a fully enclosed, contemplative outdoor room; the third garden opens to the side street and provides a forecourt to the building’s community entrance.
On the front of the library, the periodicals reading room is treated as a double-height additive piece in order to establish a scale and material richness that are commensurate with the institution’s importance. Yet its configuration is also appropriate to the neighborhood, continuing the rhythms of the pitched roofs of the adjacent houses, for example, here reinterpreted in the butterfly form. Whereas the majority of the library recedes from the street edge with more subtle material and volumetric treatments, the reading room serves as the building’s public interface, formally addressing the street by projecting forward and by the density of its material palette.
These perceptual devices allow the library’s significance to be represented by a relatively small volume, but one that establishes a strong presence and character for the library.
The front reading room’s form is further calibrated to the oblique approach by car. The inflections of its plan attenuate the volume when viewed from the quickly moving traffic. Although located within a suburban context, the library reaffirms a sense of urbanity by opening towards the street in a public gesture of invitation with a long horizontal band of windows that provide views from the outside to the activities of the library.
A continuous, deep canopy draws pedestrians inside. Passing through the front entrance, patrons arrive at a vantage point where the organization of the entire library unfolds before them. They immediately discover the continuity of the larger volume that comprises several interrelated spaces: the book stacks, the pair of reading rooms, and most significantly, the three inner gardens. In particular, these last spaces perceptually unify the experience of the library’s patrons, since all functional activities are organized around them. They occupy the heart of the building, bringing light and garden views to every part of the library.
The library’s material palette includes Norwegian slate panels, Vermont slate shingles and rough sculpings, unfinished Jarrah cladding, and wood windows. These materials were chosen not only because they minimize maintenance demands, but also because they acquire a beautiful patina with age. On the interior, the casework is clear-finished African mahogany and the floors are a combination of hardwood and cork that share the same warm tones of the exterior materials. Both inside and out, this palette balances the building’s urbanity with an informality appropriate to the library’s community-oriented function. The Library won the 9th International Award for Architecture in Stone in 2005, from the Veronafiere International Exhibition of Marble Stone and Technology (MARMOMACC), for this use of materials.
PROJECT: Honan-Allston Branch of the Boston Public Library
LOCATION: Allston, Massachusetts
CLIENT: The Boston Public Library, City of Boston, Department of Neighborhood Development
Completion date: 2001
ARCHITECT: Machado and Silvetti Associates, Inc.. Boston, Massachusetts
Jorge Silvetti, Principal in Charge, Rodolfo Machado, Consulting Principal, Timothy D. Love, AIA, Project Director, Matthew T. Oudens, AIA, Project Architect
Design Team: Michael LeBlanc, Gregory G. Canaras
STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS: Lim Associates, Inc., contact: Lee Lim, Cambridge, Massachusetts
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Richard Burck Associates, Inc., contact: Richard Burck, Somerville, Massachusetts
LIGHTING CONSULTANT: Lam Partners, Inc., contact: Glenn Heinmiller, Cambridge, Massachusetts
SPECIFICATIONS: Collective Wisdom, contact: Richard White, Weston, Massachusetts
MECHANICAL AND ELECTRICAL:
PLUMBING AND FIRE PROTECTION: Robert W. Sullivan, Inc., contact: Robert W. Sullivan
CIVIL ENGINEERS: Samiotes Consultants, contact: Charles Samiotes, Framingham, Massachusetts
PHOTOGRAPHER: Michael Moran Peabody Construction Company, Inc., contact: Edward Fish, Braintree, Massachusetts TMP Consulting Engineers, Inc., contact: Michael Spence. Boston, Massachusetts