The West Loop branch preserves building’s industrial character.
Formerly part of the Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios campus in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, the new West Loop Library is the first-ever Chicago Public Library in the community and the 81st branch for the city. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM), Chicago, as part of the ongoing development and transformation of the West Loop, the two-story adaptive reuse project preserves the building’s industrial character while creating a new cultural and social center for the neighborhood. The property was donated to the City of Chicago by developer Sterling Bay, Chicago.
Originally formed by two conjoined buildings, the library features a weathered steel exterior, which develops a protective rust-like patina over time, to unify the façade and guide visitors through the steel-framed entrance. The renovated interior exposes and reintroduces the building’s original bow-truss ceilings and skylights to create a light-filled loft-like space, reflecting the West Loop’s factory-warehouse style. Non-structural walls that divided old TV studio and office spaces were removed throughout the 16,500-sq.-ft. space.
Three new openings were created in the original common wall of the conjoined buildings to create a unified interior, as low-level bookshelves are featured throughout the reading spaces to foster a sense of visual continuity and movement.
A series of architectural and graphic interventions throughout the building announce various programmatic areas, including an all-ages reading space, flexible community and meeting rooms on the second floor, and a YOUmedia teen digital learning space with a recording studio. A “Tinkering Lab” echoes the digital space for younger children, who are also served by several early learning spaces that transform existing alcoves into storytelling rooms with interactive play elements and walls with magnetic and writeable surfaces for enhanced learning.
The environmental graphic design of the West Loop Library combines playful linework and uplifting quotes from famous works of literature to tell a cohesive story of the library and its role as a gathering place for the neighborhood. The story begins at the entrance, which welcomes visitors with the words of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, who wrote: “Raise your words, not your voice; It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” In addition to serving as a central narrative feature for the space, the quote also serves as the inspiration for the words and stories that create a unified design for the library, from its weathered steel exterior to the warm spaces within.
The colors and distinct linework throughout the interior represent how stories are borne by sound, sweeping around the children’s room and evolving as the design carries through the Tinkering Lab, YOUmedia space, and all-ages reading rooms. From a distance the lines appear to form a pattern, but a closer look reveals story lines embedded within. Each story line is drawn from a book found in the library, including 25 classic children’s books and 32 classic novels.
Libraries aren’t just for books any longer, as evidenced by programs aimed at digital graphics, music, and makers, but the Chicago Public Library’s West Loop Branch preserves a renovated building’s pre-digital industrial character while creating a new cultural and social center for the neighborhood.
Teens and Digital Media
YOUmedia Chicago is a teen digital learning space at 12 Chicago Public Library (CPL) locations, according to the library system’s website. With an emphasis on digital media and the maker movement, teens engage in projects across a variety of core content areas including graphic design, photography, video, music, 2D/3D design, STEM, and hands-on making.
The design of the space is based on the research of Professor Mizuko Ito (Univ. of California, Irvine) and colleagues as presented in Living and Learning with New Media (2008). The study found that young people participate with digital media in three ways:
• They “hang out” with friends in social spaces such as Facebook.
• They “mess around” or tinker with digital media, making simple videos, playing online games, or posting pictures on photo-sharing sites.
• They “geek out” in online groups that facilitate exploration of their core interests.
YOUmedia operates as a drop-in, out-of-school learning environment for teens to develop skills in digital media, STEM, and making. “YOUmedia applies the practice of connected learning to our programming model. We encourage participants to create rather than consume, and teens are encouraged to learn based on self-interest through intergenerational and peer collaborations. We see the library as a node on a teen’s pathway to lifelong learning, and we connect teens to other learning opportunities that will lead to skill building as well as college and career development,” according to CPL.