Seeing the Light

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Published in Architectural Record, March 2014

In the five months since its completion by Marble Fairbanks architects, the new Glen Oaks Branch Library in Queens, New York, has become a neighborhood hub. With a luminous new envelope, the LEED-Gold, steel-framed building is attracting a crowd of regulars even before the doors open each morning.

At the ground level, glazing on the west and north facades forms a literal and figurative window onto the community. The Brooklyn-based firm created a pattern of frits on the insulated glass to provide shade, but also as an inventive reference to neighborhood demographics: bars are varied in length to represent the prevalence of each of the area's 30 languages (based on numbers derived from the most recent census). “There's an algorithm that creates a tab length for every language,” explains Karen Fairbanks, partner at the firm. The architect left the middle portion of the glass clear, allowing ample daylight to flood the interior and reach the partially exposed subgrade floor. The pattern repeats at a child's eye level, where the architects inserted among the bars the word “search” translated into each of the 30 languages. “It's a word that means a lot of things,” says Fairbanks. “It relates to research in libraries, but also [to searching] in the digital sense.”

Textured channel glass, shaping the entry vestibule and the second level's west facade, echoes the bar motif and adds privacy. Nanogel insulation is sandwiched between each pair of interlocking single-glazed channels, giving portions of the facade a glowing, milky appearance and reducing solar heat gain. On the north side, a storefront reintroduces the “search” motif on a larger scale through an elaborate trick. The sun projects the word onto the curtain wall through a stenciled glass parapet in the roof, and as the sun moves throughout the day, “search” drifts down the glass and onto the curtain wall's steel fins.