Efforts made to preserve the historic architecture of Rhode Island School of Design’s year-old Fleet Library, which was carved out of a former banking hall in a project that combined restoration with distinct contemporary features, haven’t gone unnoticed.
The American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association last week recognized RISD with one of nine national library building awards, which are meant to celebrate the finest examples of library design by architects licensed in the United States.
“I would say that having aspired to having a new library for so many years, this is really the icing on the cake,” said Roger Mandle, president of RISD. “It allows us to celebrate not only the usefulness of our library, but acknowledge its beauty as well.”
The first floor of the Fleet Library at RISD is a rehabbed 1917 banking hall. Mandle said the school thought it was important to preserve and enhance the room’s historic feel in juxtaposition with some modern elements in order to make a statement about RISD’s appreciation for the past, present and future.
That’s why the newer constructions look temporary and the materials are complementary, not competing with the existing materials in the room.
“[This award] is an affirmation of the process that we went through,” said Carol Terry, director of library sciences at RISD.
She said RISD staff worked with the Boston firm Office dA, whose principals are architects Nader Tehrani, a 1986 RISD graduate, and Monica Ponce de Leon, and with a team from Shawmut Design and Construction to execute the design of the library.
“We were so lucky … to get this space, which is on the National Register of Historic Places,” she said. “It was the perfect adaptive reuse project.”
The new library is also four times the size of the old one, which was at the corner of College and Benefit streets. It can seat 200 students, whereas the previous library only seated 70. And it holds 90 percent of RISD’s collection of art and design materials, versus 65 percent.
In addition, because Fleet Library is downtown, at 15 Westminster St., the staff is making outreach to the business community a bigger part of its mission, Terry said. They’ve already held three events specifically for businesses to help spread the word that the library is a resource for them as well as the students.
“It is a professionals’ library,” Mandle said. “It is a library about art and design; therefore its first call is to people in those fields.”
But that’s not to say other types of businesses couldn’t benefit from its use, he said. The library connects to services offered by the Center for Design and Business because it is a resource the center can direct creative entrepreneurs and businesses to for information.
For everyone who visits, “the aesthetic experience of being in the space is as rich as the books in it,” Mandle said.
It is becoming an attraction for the downtown as well, Terry said. Though the library has yet to tally the number of visitors, estimates are in the hundreds.
As for the future, Terry said she hopes the award helps attract donors and additional funds for the library. And that it helps to promote memberships, which can be bought for the ability to use more of the library’s resources.
As to its aesthetics, AIA/ALA jury members prepared a statement that reflects why they chose the Fleet Library as one of the recipients of the biennial award.
“This restrained architectural intervention into a historic structure is skillfully done,” they said. “Beautifully detailed and crafted, its stepped platform … adds a welcome sociability lacking in so many other libraries. Beneath it, the private, recessed computer alcoves and work stations have their own allure.”
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