The wish list for a new Walker Library was long, but one aspiration really stood out: “We wanted to create a new living room for Uptown,” said Jennifer Yoos, a principal of VJAA, the Minneapolis architecture firm responsible for the new people magnet that now graces the corner of Hennepin and Lagoon avenues in Minneapolis.

Done. Working on a cramped site — and squeezing every dollar out of a Great Recession-era budget — the firm ingeniously pieced together the puzzle that is the 21st-century library.

Staffing and security issues dictated a single-floor design, and when patrons enter for the first time they can grasp, almost instantaneously, how the place works. That seldom happens.

Even better, the prodigiously user-friendly library is also a daydream-inducing setting for sitting and reading, whether it’s a book, newspaper, magazine, tablet or computer screen. If a Starbucks counter were tucked behind the information desk, I’d probably never leave.

Borrowing a beloved trait from the lofty reading rooms of old, the wide-open, single-floor interior is flooded with sunlight, both direct and diffused, even on the most overcast of days. An east-facing bank of 14-foot windows grabs the morning light, and strategically placed clerestory windows pull in the afternoon sun.

Another dimension comes through the ceiling, which is punched by a half-dozen light-disseminating glass boxes covered in yellow screens. The VJAA crew, led by architect Vincent James, dubbed their invention “Skycubes,” and all six cubes are laid out in a jagged-toothed row, each set at a slightly different orientation. As the sun crosses the sky, they filter its rays through an ever-changing spectrum of yellows that swing, as the day progresses, from canary to a verging-on-chartreuse.

It’s all so airy and inviting, (two rare attributes when associated with the words “free and open to public”) and while the entire building’s footprint is roughly equivalent to that of an average Old Navy store, the interior’s sweep makes it feel roomier.

A timeless color palette (coordinated by Barnhouse Office, the St. Paul interior design firm) predominates. The crisp white of the roof’s exposed steel trusses and the warm honey of the walnut bookcases provide a muted backdrop for cheerful pops of Sunday comics colors, most noticeably in the comfort-minded furniture.

The tricks aren’t solely visual. Acoustical panels, hidden in the perforated metal ceiling and behind a ribbon of sky-blue walls that circumnavigates the space, help keep the wide-open room library-quiet.

There’s no skimping on the creature comforts. The playful children’s library is tailor-made to animate young intellectual interests. Well-appointed meeting rooms more than address the library’s emphasis on community outreach. The great-looking restrooms and the small, affordable basement parking garage both rank among Uptown’s best-kept secrets.

Curb appeal

The exterior works as well as the interior. Finally, the northwest corner of the key Hennepin-Lagoon intersection has the visual heft it has sorely lacked, and Uptown has a gateway structure that is worthy to stand alongside the landmark 1939 Uptown Theatre, the library’s neighbor to the south.

Traditional brick and stone were well beyond the county’s budget, so VJAA repurposeda more cost-effective metal roofing material. The made-in-Wisconsin product is tinted a dignified bronze, and its geometric pattern plays with sunlight and shadow in ways that masonry can’t touch.

On the roof, the Skycubes become VJAA’s marquee-like shoutout to the neighboring Uptown Theatre’s 50-foot neon-lit poke into the sky.

The roof’s slight sidewalk overhang pulls pedestrians into the building, like a hug, and could be read as a post-recession nod to the cantilever fever that gripped the previous decade’s cultural building boom at the Walker Art Center, Guthrie Theater and Minneapolis Central Library.

Those vast expanses of windows bring the inside out, making the building’s purpose read loud and clear. Walking, biking or driving past, you can’t help but know that you’re approaching a library. And a popular one, at that.

Third time’s the charm

The new Walker Library, now a month shy of its first birthday, is the neighborhood’s third. The original dates to 1911 (it was named for lumber baron and library board member T.B. Walker, of Walker Art Center fame, who donated the land) and it’s a standard-issue model of the early 20th-century, Carnegie-style American library, a stolid, brown-brick Greek temple with a card catalog.

It played host to bookworms for 70 years before its replacement went up across Hennepin Avenue in 1981. It still stands, empty, awaiting a use worthy of its proud heritage and prime location.

Walker 2.0 materialized during an unfortunate but blessedly brief infatuation with underground buildings. Plagued with issues both structural (leaking, mold) and aesthetic (because who wants to thumb through “The Adventures of Tintin” while seated in a concrete-lined bunker?), it also had the street presence of a Porta-Potty.

A later fix involved placing cartoonish seven-foot, brushed stainless steel letters spelling l-i-b-r-a-r-y on its lawn, and let’s face it, if a public building’s purpose has to be literally spelled out, well, #fail.

The second Walker Library lasted exactly half as long as its predecessor, and little of it remains. Aside from a small amount of concrete superstructure and those enormous aluminum letters (they’re now lined up, like sentinels, on the building’s rear driveway), VJAA wiped the slate clean and started over, even though the demolition grabbed a not-insignificant chunk of Walker 3.0’s budget.

Smart move, because the neighborhood now has the landmark it wanted. A disappointment is the small and depressingly inert tract to the library’s north, a key parcel framed by the Midtown Greenway, Hennepin Avenue, the terminus of the Mall and the library, and owned by the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board.

Minneapolis landscape architect Bob Close has devised a plan to bring it to life, but the scheme lacks funding. Get in line, right?

Otherwise, the Walker Library is a win-win on all fronts: A well-spent $12 million for Hennepin County taxpayers, a tremendous physical and psychological boon to Uptown and a high-profile triumph for VJAA.

 

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