The removal of the granite plinths makes a stunning difference.

photo by: Bruce T. Martin

March 6, 2018

Boston Public Library's Renovation Proves Brutalism Has a Place Today

  • By: Meghan White

The Glass House, the AT&T Building, the Crystal Cathedral, PPG Place—the names of these buildings immediately conjure up wide panels of glass, unconventional shapes, and distinct 20th-century forms. The architect behind them was Philip Johnson, whose name went hand-in-hand with the Modernist and Postmodernist movements in the second half of the 20th century. He cultivated relationships with fellow architects like Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius and never denied the influence Mies van der Rohe had on his work. Johnson’s buildings elicited responses as strong and disparate as his designs. He critiqued himself, admitting, for example, that his 1972 Brutalist addition to the Boston Public Library's main branch in Copley Square didn’t come out quite the way he intended.

More than 40 years later, William Rawn Associates (WRA) led a multi-faceted renovation of the addition that used “Johnsonian principals” to respect the architect’s design while pushing the structure’s form and function into the 21st century.

The Johnson Building abuts the older McKim Building, an Italian Renaissance-inspired stone library built by Charles Follem McKim of the architecture firm McKim, Meade & White in 1895. Johnson sought to integrate the two structures' exteriors by designing the addition with a cornice that aligns with the McKim Building’s and using the same Milford granite that matches its neighbor. The McKim Building is a typical library space, with classical architectural influences and a vast reading room with high ceilings and low-lit tables that create a feeling of cozy isolation from the outside world.

Johnson’s building also isolated visitors, but in a decidedly less-cozy way. The exterior of the structure was popularly described as a “fortress,” thanks to its oversized bays and generous use of monolithic granite plinths set in front of the ground floor windows that obscured views—though removing those barriers wouldn’t have made much of a difference, given that the windows were so darkly tinted that they hindered visibility and made the building look impenetrable and intimidating.

Inside, once a person got past the row of security scanners and into the main lobby, fluorescent strips of lighting and a neutral color palette created a static and uninspired feeling common to many public libraries of the mid-20th century.

The reception of Johnson’s addition when it opened in 1972 was lukewarm. Overall, the building hardly meshed with its neighbor, and it was hard to navigate inside. In hindsight, appreciators of architecture may question why it was constructed as an addition to the McKim Building in the first place. But in 1972, Brutalism and the purpose of libraries were compatible. Brutalist architecture surfaced in the United States and abroad because its no-nonsense design and use of raw and simple materials appealed to architects and others of the post-war generation. Not to mention that concrete—the primary material in Brutalism—was inexpensive and could be reinforced and cast in a seemingly endless number of ways. (It was also believed that concrete was easy to maintain, which we know now is certainly not the case.) Public libraries were no-nonsense in their own way, too. Their primary purpose was to provide the public with printed and research materials like books, videos, and microfilm, and to protect those resources for posterity.

One can hardly say that libraries function today the same way they did in 1972. Digitization and easier access to information, among other changes, have led to conversations about public libraries' role now. Libraries can succeed in the 21st century, though, and many do, like those covered in the Winter 2018 issue of Preservation magazine.

“The ideal was not to destroy the Johnson heritage, but to understand it and then improve upon it.”

Bill Rawn

At Boston Public Library's main branch, WRA addressed the divide between Brutalism and modern-day library functionality through a renovation geared to revamp and enliven the building from the inside out. Before Bill Rawn and his team picked up a pencil, they analyzed Johnson’s written and built work.

“We got into what we called Johnsonian principals,” explains Cliff Gayley, a principal at WRA. “He was a prolific talker and writer, so there was a lot to read and digest. We came up with five principals of his work and nine principals on what makes a new type of library.”

“The ideal was not to destroy the Johnson heritage, but to understand it and then improve upon it,” Bill Rawn adds.

Once the architects at WRA became comfortable with their design, they worked with the city and its Landmarks Commission to address their alterations. The new design involved demolishing some parts that were landmarked, such as the exterior granite slabs blocking the windows and the interior walls that cut up the space. After a series of meetings with the Landmarks Commission and other city officials, WRA got the go-ahead to implement their design.

The Big Urban Room is now a bustling and colorful space.

photo by: Bruce T. Martin

"The Big Urban Room" is now a welcoming space.

The tall windows offer clear views in and out of the space.

photo by: Robert Benson Photography

With the granite plinths removed, sunlight streams through the now-open lobby.

“[Johnson] was quite critical of some of the work of the library, so that gave us a little more freedom to adjust,” says Rawn. A few aspects of the library that didn’t quite achieve what Johnson wanted included the main entrance and lobby, which originally had 60 feet of security scanners bounded by granite walls. Beyond one wall was the circulation desk, and beyond that—more walls. WRA addressed that by demolishing the walls to open up the entrance from Boylston Street. The new space, appropriately renamed “The Big Urban Room,” is easily visible from the street thanks to the replacement of the darkly tinted glass with tall, transparent windows. An undulating acoustic wood ceiling absorbs sounds that bounce off the granite floors and warms up the space. Here, patrons can check out the newest books, grab a bite at the cafe, or watch a live broadcast at TV station WGBH’s street-level studio.

A not-so-subtle difference between the original Johnson interior and WRA’s renovation is the second floor, where bright patches of color on the walls, carpet, and balconies contrast with the otherwise neutral color palette of the granite.

The colorful orange and lower stacks opens up the space.

photo by: Robert Benson Photography

The original tall book stacks (pictured above) were replaced with low stacks seen here that open up the space.

“The building is very deep,” Gayley explains. “One of the challenges is getting daylight into the building. We felt color was important to create a sense of liveliness and fun.”

The orange walls and pistachio-hued carpet on the second floor certainly accomplish WRA’s goal of bringing more light into the space where sunlight can’t reach. And while the decision to enliven the interior with color is a great departure from the Johnsonian interior, the idea wasn’t completely disjointed.

“We looked at the John Singer Sargent murals in the McKim Building,” explains Gayley. “Many are dark and brooding, but they have flashes of bright reds and vivid blues that we tried to capture.”

Though this connection may not be immediately obvious to the library’s patrons, it’s this kind of attention to detail that enabled WRA to succeed in aligning the building more closely with the McKim Building in an almost seamless way—to create a “dialogue,” in Gayley’s words.

The team at WRA went further to connect the two buildings through the re-imagined programming of the Johnson addition. The McKim Building is more of a research library, which complements its quiet reading room and peaceful spaces. But the Johnson addition is a public space, where patrons walk in from the streets to check out new books, revisit old favorites, connect to Wi-Fi, and more.

“Occasionally I’d be in the building before it would open working with the staff, and I’d observe that 20 minutes before the library [was scheduled to open], people would be gathering outside the front door,” remembers Gayley. Almost two years after the re-opening, the library is still a popular hot spot for Boston's residents, proving that public libraries are as integral to communities today as they were in 1972.

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

Announcing the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

See the List